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Beyond the Ordinary: Improving Coverage of Disability

Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, winner of the inaugural Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability, discussed reporting on disability issues at the ASU Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Must See Monday event on Nov. 25, 2013. Here is his full speech:

Late in 1999, local newspapers in California wine country began publishing stories about Sonoma Developmental Center employees’ acts of violence against patients and how officials covered up the crimes. Sonoma was the nation’s largest institution for the developmentally disabled. Despite its size, the institution had not attracted public scrutiny for decades.

Suddenly, Sonoma was receiving all kinds of attention from state lawmakers, all of it unwelcome.

Some demanded that local police be called whenever a patient suffered serious harm.

To quell the budding scandal, Cliff Allenby, then the top official for serving California’s developmentally disabled and operating the board-and-care institutions, wrote to the officials to appease and dissuade them from taking action. His agency would improve internal investigations. There was no need to call the cops.

Allenby was honest about his thoughts on the matter of prosecuting criminals among his employees. He wrote: “The criminal investigate scope of the allegations are minimized by the functioning level of the consumers, usually the victims.”

In other words, give up on pursuing justice for patients at institutions. They’re too disabled to be worth the effort.

I doubt the lawmakers agreed with Allenby’s assessment. No matter, no meaningful reform materialized.

Fast forward a decade. I cover public safety and criminal justice for the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. I like to describe my beat as cops, courts and catastrophes. My jurisdiction is law enforcement, stories about our society’s endeavors to protect against criminal harm, why we succeed and why we fail.

If someone had alerted me to patient abuse at California’s state-run institutions for the developmentally disabled, I’d probably have decided the story was outside my turf. Developmental centers are normally on the health care beat.

Of course, I would have been 100 percent wrong.

Luckily, the developmental center police story landed on my desk in April 2011 in the form of a tip about financial fraud at a small police force I’d never heard of. The anonymous whistleblower came with proof: documentation showing sworn police at the Office of Protective Services cashing out suspiciously huge amounts of overtime. It looked like a fun story that I could report out and write in a month or so; what we call a “quick turn” investigation.

So, I started going through my routine first steps, gathering all the general information my brain can hold. Find out who lives at California’s developmental centers. Figure out what in the world is the Office of Protective Services. What kind of police work is it responsible for?

Some reporters try to avoid the so-called “targets” of their investigation until they have the story nailed.

I’m the opposite. My first phone call was to the chief of OPS to ask basic questions. But the chief and I didn’t get beyond introductions, as he informed me that he isn’t allowed to talk to the press about, well, anything.

He referred me to a spokeswoman. She asked me to email a list of written questions. (I’m still waiting for a response to those questions. Further, the entire agency is under orders not to speak with reporters, me in particular.)

Since when does someone boss around the police chief? I asked myself, as alarms began to ring in my brain.

I kept working the phones, calling advocates, parents groups, everyone with a connection to the centers. I found a Disability Rights California study from two-decades-ago about a botched murder investigation at a now-shuttered center.

From there, a source provided me an 80-page report out of the state attorney general’s office in 2002 all about the Office of Protective Services. Like most audits, it was written in consultant-speak. But that didn’t obscure the frightening conclusion: the police force was a dysfunctional mess.

One sentence on page four eliminated my plans for a “quick turn” story about embezzlement. It said that a majority of the in-house officers “lack the training … experience … and proper equipment to competently preserve and collect crime scene evidence.”

That is insane.

Let me step back for a moment here and explain how something that horrifying in a public document doesn’t spur massive news coverage.

Stories about the disabled, certainly those inside institutions but also people struggling with day-to-day life, are like shuttered big box store buildings to reporters. They’re monoliths, ugly, windowless, featureless. Their doors appear barricaded.

If you’re walking by, nothing feels inviting about these stories.

Most stories online, in papers, on TV and radio live in very different buildings. They have excellent, bright signage. Lots of foot traffic in front, people handing out free samples of what’s available inside. Reporters on deadline like these buildings very much.

But in most cases, I believe, they’re not even aware they have made a choice. The reporters didn’t even notice the shuttered building they passed.

Newsrooms need to wake up to disabled in their community. They are hiding in plainsight. Once you know what is happening, that these stories exist, I don’t see how a reporter can look away.

Now, I’ve reported on all kinds of police work and had never before seen anything to suggest sworn officers aren’t capable of gathering physical evidence. The Department of Developmental Services promised widespread reform of the police force after the AG issued the report.

Problem solved, right? If only the world worked so cleanly.

In 2005, Disability Rights authored another report, this time about genital lacerations at a California developmental center. All the failures persisted, and the examination provided a glimpse of the human victims. It was almost too painful to read.

What I needed next was data, a way to quantify the size and make-up of the OPS caseload. Interviewing a state official, I expressed frustration at my inability to track incidents at the centers.

Sounding perplexed, the official asked, “Have you looked at the Health Facilities Consumer Information System.”

It is a glorious data set. Those records made all the other reporting possible. Every state has something similar.

From 2008 to 2010, the incident data documented 250 substantiated cases of patient abuse at the five centers. And the number of cases increased even as the number of patients dropped.

Meanwhile, sources began sending information about cases, including the story of a Fairview Developmental Center patient who died after suffering a broken neck. I searched the name, Van Ingraham, and found a blog written by the patient’s brother, Larry.

The first post opened:

“It’s 2:15 A.M., and I’m weary. Not from the day now past, but from the past 2 years and 8 months of fighting the State of California after my autistic brother was the victim of a homicide the State covered up.

His neck was snapped so bad by a State employee working with the disabled in a State hospital, it was obvious right from the start my brother was the victim of a homicide.”

Needless to say, I immediately dialed Larry’s attorney, Donovan Jacobs, to find out what they knew, what they could prove. Donovan wanted to find out why they should bother talking to some reporter at something called California Watch. It took a bit of convincing, but he passed me on to Van’s brother.

Larry was less reticent. He described thousands of pages of case file records in his basement. If I flew down to his house in San Diego, he said I could go through it all and take what I needed.

Around this time, in late May 2011, I sat down with my editor, Bob Salladay, to outline the story. This was going to take months of reporting, so I needed his clearance to keep digging. How should I proceed?

Salladay’s response was awe-inspiring. He said: “You’re going to need to travel for this – so just go.”

A few days later I landed in San Diego with a change of clothes in an overnight bag and an oversized empty duffle bag to carry records on Ingraham’s death back to Berkeley.

The developmental police story fulfilled every condition of my beat. Cops, who don’t arrest criminals. Courts, that hardly ever see a patient abuse prosecution. And catastrophes, hundreds of abuse and suspicious injury cases a year across the state.

As part of my background reporting, I researched who lives in the centers, making extensive use of analysis out of the University of California San Francisco. With every additional piece of information, my alarm bells rang louder. The centers are home to perhaps the most vulnerable people in California. And the police force that exists solely to ensure they receive justice had proven itself unable to do basic police work.

I’ve sent more than a dozen public records requests to developmental services and the Department of Public Health. These efforts have been less than fruitful. DDS delays releasing records for months and denied some requests outright.

My request to public health for developmental center citations yielded about a 100 pages that were almost completely blacked out. Attorneys for the state argued investigations of patient abuse constituted a “service” to the developmentally disabled, making them confidential. The Center for Investigative Reporting is suing the public health department to force release of the citations without redaction. We should have a ruling in the case in the coming months.

As the state delayed and hid information, I built a network of sources within the system.

But it started with Larry Ingraham. He worked with his best friend and lawyer, Donovan, to meticulously investigate the OPS investigation into his brother’s death. The retired police officers knew what to look for.

Their work, the internal records, allowed me to detail Fairview police’s myriad errors.

Families have been massively helpful. However, many people inside the centers have risked their careers to provide me source documents and guidance during the 18 months I reported on the Office of Protective Services.

Without such brave risk takers, we would never have learned the details of the torture of 12 men at the Sonoma center with a stun gun, which a caregiver allegedly used as a cattle prod.

No arrest in that case.

Nor would I have been able to tell the story of dozens of sex assaults inside the institutions in recent years, including the pattern of attacks inside one unit at Sonoma, where it appears predators roamed free. That unit was also the residence where a patient named Jennifer was raped and became pregnant.

All of this had been kept silent.

California law allows governments to keep a great many secrets. This is especially true when it comes to the state’s developmentally disabled population. In the name of patient privacy, we let institutions and homes operate outside of public scrutiny. Criminal investigation files are sealed for all eternity.

“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard … is what makes it great.”

Thanks for allowing me to speak with you today. I’d be glad to answer questions.