Capitol News Illinois, reporting partners win RFK Human Rights journalism award
Reporting series focused on abuse and cover-ups at state-run mental health facility
By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS
SPRINGFIELD – Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises and ProPublica are winners of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their investigative series into a culture of abuse and cover-ups at a state-run center for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The series, entitled “Culture of Cruelty,” unearthed a yearslong pattern of patient abuse and cover-up culture that existed to hide horrific abuse and neglect at Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in southern Illinois.
“Our domestic print winners pierced a veil of secrecy surrounding a state-run facility in Illinois,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof said during a virtual award ceremony Wednesday. “The journalists faced numerous obstacles while chasing the story. But once the secrets began to unravel, they found their award-winning entry.”
State officials cited the investigative findings in their announcement of a plan to relocate about half of the facility’s residents.
On Wednesday, the news outlets were announced as winners of the RFK Human Rights Award in the domestic print category. The outlets’ reporters – Beth Hundsdorfer of Capitol News Illinois and Molly Parker of Lee Enterprises and ProPublica – have published 11 stories on the topic thus far and they continue to report on the topic.
The nationwide award includes submissions from the country’s most prominent news outlets. Previous winners include outlets such as the New York Times, Associated Press and Washington Post.
It’s an award given annually to news stories that provide insights into the “causes, conditions, and remedies of human rights violations and injustice, and critical analysis of relevant policies, programs, individual actions, and private endeavors that foster positive change.”
In 2007 while at the Belleville News Democrat, Hundsdorfer and her former reporting partner, George Pawlaczyk, received the award for an investigative series into the deaths of 53 children who were under the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
She and Parker began investigating Choate in 2022, eventually teaming up to pool the newsrooms’ resources. The investigation involved dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests, thousands of pages of documents, extensive interviews with sources, database building and other reporting efforts.
It continues as the state executes its plan of repurposing the facility and relocating about half of its residents to other settings.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that distributes coverage of state government to hundreds of newspapers and broadcast outlets daily. It launched in January 2019 and Hundsdorfer joined the reporting team in fall 2021.
“It’s an honor to have our outlet’s name associated with such a prestigious award, but it’s sobering to think what Beth and Molly have unearthed had gone on for so long,” Capitol News Illinois Bureau Chief Jerry Nowicki said. “Today, we’re grateful for their hard work on this topic and their continuing efforts to shed light on what’s gone on at Choate.”
Lee Enterprises is one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains and ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that partners with local reporting outlets to fund investigative and longform journalism projects.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.