Chicago Tribune Reporters Win Nieman Center Journalism Prize

Michael J. Berens and Patricia Callahan, reporters at The Chicago Tribune, were awarded the 50th Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism last week for their reporting on group homes in Illinois.

Since 1967, the Nieman Foundation's award has honored investigative reporting that serves the public interest. Berens and Callahan reported and wrote a three-part series called “Suffering in Secret,” which explored malpractice in some Illinois group homes for low-income adults with disabilities.

Berens said he first wanted to write the story after hearing similar accounts of group home practice in other parts of the United States.

“The origins of this story came when I was in Seattle for a conference about the state of group homes in Washington, and I thought that there had to be exploitation of seniors back in Illinois,” he said.

Berens said he then returned to Illinois and partnered with Callahan. Early on in his reporting, he said he realized that the state actively hid the addresses of their group homes.

The duo filed more than 100 public records request to find the locations of the group homes and began investigating the conditions in them. They reported that many of the homes were run-down and underfunded and the government misallocated money to them.

During the ceremony, Callahan and Berens said they felt empowered to give a voice to those who might otherwise be voiceless. Berens and Callahan recalled a story about Thomas Powers, a mute senior who lived in one of the group homes and was found dead in a storage closet that had a sign that stated that “the room was not fit for human occupancy.”

“Thomas Powers was literally voiceless, and because of these group homes, he was found dead on a soiled mattress in a storage closet,” Callahan said.

After the first stories, the government began reforming group homes regulations, Berens said. There are currently seven pieces of legislation pending in the Illinois legislature looking to reform group home living.

“Group homes are viewed as better than the dilapidated institutions, however, I worked on investigations in two states now, and I can tell you they are not,” Berens said.

Berens and Callahan also received $20,000 sum from the Nieman Foundation to accompany the award.

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