Balancing reporting on vulnerable children while protecting their privacy

Balancing reporting on vulnerable children while protecting their privacy

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with THE CITY. Subscribe to Dispatches to get stories like this as soon as they’re published.

In November, we published an article about three New York teenagers who struggled to get mental health services that the city’s public schools are legally required to provide. We identified one of these teenagers by her full name and the second by her first name only. For the third teenager, we agreed to use only his middle name and, unlike the other two, to refrain from naming a relative.

We tracked families’ stated preferences for their children’s privacy. But in doing so, we wrestled with difficult questions about how best to serve the readers and children we were writing about.

The norm in journalism is to identify sources by full name whenever possible. Readers deserve to know who is speaking, especially when a source accuses a person or a public system of wrongdoing. And it’s part of our job as journalists to demonstrate why we deserve a reader’s trust. Especially in surveys, credibility is the most important currency we have, and we try to earn it by being as transparent as possible about our reports.

When writing about children with mental health issues, however, things get complicated. In the year I’ve worked on this series about access to mental health care for children in New York, I’ve found myself writing about some of life’s most intimate and painful moments. of people who are not old enough to give informed consent.

In many cases, I have been able to speak directly to the children I write about, formally or informally. In other cases, it was not possible – either because the children were in crisis, or in a residential program, or simply because they were so tired of the whole subject that they had no interest in it. rehash with me. Young people in the mental health system often have to discuss their worst memories – or the worst things they’ve ever done – with what can seem like an endless stream of admissions specialists, new therapists, school, deans, probation officers, etc. on. There’s a limit to how many times someone wants to tell the story of their suicide attempt or the time they attacked their mother.

The reporting in my most recent article posed an additional ethical dilemma: the family requesting the highest level of anonymity – that of the teenager we identified only by his middle name – was also the family with the greatest financial resources. , a fact that was crucial to the story. By granting their request, were we contributing to the idea that the kid with the most money was the one most deserving of privacy or that he had more to lose? Were we implying that a wealthy family should be more ashamed of mental illness than a poor family?

In the end, we stuck to the policy we’ve used since the beginning of the project, which is that we allow parents and guardians to decide the degree of identification or anonymity of their children.

Parents’ decisions have often been marked by concern: how will their children feel about seeing personal information posted online? Will their family be publicly defined by what we write? Will the story show up in a Google search if a prospective college admissions counselor or employer searches for their child’s name? Will their in-laws see it?

Some parents also worry about retaliation. The universe of care for children with very serious mental health problems is small, and the sickest children are often in the physical care of outside caregivers. What if families have to hand over their children to a hospital or school they have publicly criticized?

There was one thing, however, that every child and parent I spoke to told me why they decided to speak to me: they all wanted to improve the system. Children in mental health crisis face an almost universal set of problems, including underfunded programs, waiting lists for services, constant staff turnover and inadequate care. And yet, these problems are virtually invisible to the outside world. Without exception, the children and parents who appeared in these stories decided they were willing to compromise their privacy in hopes that another family would not have to endure what theirs had done.

“I just hope someone will take care of it – a legislator, an oversight committee, someone will really take care of it,” said Tamara Begel, a parent from Long Island who has spent many hours this year to help me understand her years-long struggle to get mental health care for her son. “When politicians just hear the numbers, ‘Oh, it’s hundreds or thousands of kids sitting in waiting rooms or psychiatric ERs, waiting for beds’, it’s all too easy to say ‘aww’ and move on. I want them to see that it’s real.

When I first wrote about Begel’s family, she chose to identify herself and her son by their middle names. Shortly after the story was published, however, New York Attorney General Letitia James held a hearing into the statewide lack of access to mental health care, and Begel decided to testify. publicly. Since then, she has become more outspoken in her advocacy for children and families on Long Island.

But the choice to go public with one’s name and story remains difficult, Begel told me recently. “I’m still not 100% comfortable. I still wake up at night wondering if I did the right thing or if it will have a negative effect on my child. Only time will tell.

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