A Troubled Group Home for ProPublica
I am so behind on blogging that I fear I may never catch up with all the work I’ve been busy creating the past few months (take a look at www.BrinsonBanks.com to see some of that). Nonetheless, this story was very important to me so I am finally sharing it (while on a flight from LA to Miami for a 3-day shoot).
I teamed up with a remarkable ProPublica writer Joaquin Sapien (seen in the final image with a neighborhood cat we named Dog) to work on a very important story in a small community. The Level 14 (highest level) group home in a neighborhood in Long Beach was reported as being volatile by the residents who live next door, first by a neighbor who emailed Joaquin because she had become desperate. One neighbor led to another and the ones closest to the home each had binders with copies of letters they’d sent to officials and lists of time and date of incidences they’d witnessed. One even had security cameras installed at her house to feel safe.
The players in this story are the neighbors who had witnessed children and teens screaming being chased down the street by the employees of the home. One neighbor who shares a wall with the yard at the home also was threatened, as was her son, by the troubled kids next door. The neighbors worried the residents weren’t safe inside after incident after incident of shouting, kids going AWOL by jumping the fence and police cars and ambulances on their dead end street week after week, and also their quality of life at home had deteriorated because of it. Then there’s the police and the government officials trying to follow protocol in listening to and gauging complaints and reports. Then there’s the actual group home–the boys and girls who had wound up there through the state and also the employees who were running the home, perhaps in a way that wasn’t up to the standards of the state. I can’t do this story justice, so please read Joaquin’s reporting HERE.
We spoke to the surrounding neighbors and talked to police and a councilman. My job was difficult because I needed to illustrate a place we couldn’t quite get access to–we could sit just outside and possibly be there when a kid jumped the fence (we did end up meeting one boy who ran away and was high on meth and confirmed all the neighbor’s worst fears about what went on inside–he is seen in the top image), but I couldn’t go inside until one night when we attended a neighborhood meeting at the facility with the neighbors and various officials. I’ve thought about one incident this night over and over. Neighbors and officials were leaving the meeting and tensions were high because it had come to a boiling point with the neighbors wanting something done and feeling desperate and ignored, and as we walked out one neighbor told me to look to the left at a window. There I saw three girls banging repeatedly holding up signs asking for help and crying. The signs read “Please help me I feel unsafe. I want to press charges,” as well as “Assault Help Call 911,” and “I need to press charges.” I had the helpless feeling of not knowing what to do–Were these girls okay? Were they putting on a show? They were certainly upset. There were police and county officials walking by who ignored it, this wasn’t something new to them and a lot of the residents there deal with mental issues, as well. I started taking a couple of photos not sure if we could use them but this was the photo I needed that clearly illustrated this place was dysfunctional. I pointed the troubling scene out to Joaquin and others and stood and watched, a little stunned, and was never secretive about my actions at all as I was standing in the direct path of everyone leaving the meeting. Then, as we exited the property onto the street, surrounded by the neighbors still chatting about the meeting, the woman in charge of the group home ran towards me and started yelling at me. Then two others from the facility joined in. She insisted I delete the photos and that I had taken them on private property, which was true, though all the other photos I’d taken at the meeting were also on private property. I calmly apologized and said I did not intend to upset anyone but felt it was necessary to take the photos and I would ensure no faces were shown (luckily the fact that they were backlit made this easy, and I was not the least bit interested in showing any faces as this was a story about a home not an individual). She said she would sue me and I could not use the photos. I of course later told my editor at ProPublica and she and their lawyers made decisions on what images to use, but it really shook me–first the shock of seeing these desperate girls and then photographing the scene and then being yelled at for it, but also this electric rare feeling of getting the photo that told the story. I worried the next few days if I had done the right thing by taking the photos, I don’t want to be exploitative, I don’t want to upset people–I’m not a photographer who shoots newsy action anymore, but I think ultimately if I am a good documentary photographer and walked past that scene without taking an image I was doing myself and the story a disservice, even if it ruffled a lot of feathers and upset me, as well.
It is rare to spend time needed on a story. It is also very rare to work on a story that can directly help the lives of others. That is actually the dream of photojournalists, to have the rare luxury of time to build trust and to create change with that work.
I am proud to report that the home was shut down by the state after this story with all of Joaquin’s detailed reporting ran. You can read about that HERE.
Reporter Joaquin Sapien and our mascot Dog