Opinion: Reporting that makes a real difference

On the front page about two months ago, AJC investigative reporter Alan Judd shared the tragic story of Lucretia Felder.

The story was upsetting, complicated and hard to tell, but, as you see, it has a happy ending. And it was the kind of story you’d only find in your newspaper.

The state of Georgia placed her in foster care at age two, and she’s spent almost her whole life as a ward of the state. Over time, the state would determine she belonged in a group home, a residential school for intellectually disabled children and a “retardation center” for adults.

Then would come psychiatric hospitals and finally a medical prison.

“Felder’s case is especially complicated, and resolving it could test the limits of depopulating the institutions that have held people like her since the 19th century,” Judd wrote. “She is one of about three dozen people with developmental disabilities who remain in state custody as ‘forensic’ patients. All either were found not guilty by reason of insanity or, like Felder, were declared mentally incompetent to stand trial on criminal charges.”

Felder’s case tells the story of a bigger problem, one that Judd has kept before Georgia taxpayers.

For a decade, the state’s behavioral-health system has been under close scrutiny by the federal government.

After the AJC reported on the deaths of more than 100 patients in 2007, the state promised to change its system that included seven psychiatric hospitals. The idea was to move patients out of big institutions, and let them live in homes.

Georgia is still trying to get that done, and Lucretia Felder’s case shows how hard it can be.

Through the story of Felder, Judd humanized and put a face on the complex problem – and showed how the state can lose sight of a vulnerable person.

Without question, Felder’s case is complicated. She’s 44, but a doctor put her psychological and emotional level at about equal to a seven-year-old. She has a history of aggression. She’s attacked caregivers and tangled with other patients. If she lives outside an institution, two caregivers would have to be with her at all times.

It looked as though the state may have given up on her – placing her in South Carolina at a private, for-profit medical prison. There she sat, and even though the state is required to review her case each year, no one had for 10 years.

“The injustice of her case was so extreme,” Judd told me. “It seemed unfathomable that a person in the state’s custody could be forgotten or ignored for more than a decade.”

This was a story worth knowing for our readers – the kind of story about one person that shows a bigger story.

Judd was determined to tell it.

So he first sought the state’s records on Felder.

“I drove down to Milledgeville for what is usually one of the most mundane parts of reporting: reading her court file,” he said. “That’s where I found a slip of note paper, on which someone had written ‘needs annual commitment review/hearing.’ She should have had her day in court every year for 10 years, but no one in authority had done anything to ensure it.”

Judd has worked for the AJC since 1999, and you’ve seen his byline on some our biggest stories – including the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.

As he dug into Felder’ story, Judd also thought carefully about his responsibilities as a journalist.

“As I got into the story, I wanted to make sure Lucretia was capable of understanding that her life – including her inability to control her once-frequent violent impulses – would be on display,” Judd told me.

Judd connected with Barbara Fischer of Macon, a former employee of the Georgia Advocacy Office who continued advocating for Lucretia after her retirement and is now her friend. He also received assurance from a current staff member at the GAO that the office had explained to Lucretia what Judd was doing.

Lucretia even signed a release form that allowed the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to release her records and to publicly discuss her case.

But Judd still faced challenges with exposing this story.

“They prevented me from interviewing Lucretia in person at the medical prison in South Carolina, although she exercised her right to call me several times,” he said.

And then the department wouldn’t answer questions about its handling of the case, citing a concern for privacy.

But Judd’s tenacity paid off.

A little over a week ago, a judge in Milledgeville convened a hearing about Felder’s case, and she was there. So was Judd, and the two finally met in person just before the brief proceeding.

Superior Court Judge William A. Prior told the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to place Felder in her own home within three months.

For Judd, it was a moment when he could see the direct result that powerful journalism can achieve. Without him, this story almost certainly goes untold and Felder languishes in that prison.

And those of us who work with him know this about Judd: he will persist.

“The system is still greatly flawed, as Lucretia’s story illustrates,” he said. “Her situation is extreme, but not unique. That’s important for people to know as the state makes the case for release from federal oversight.”

We depend on Judd, and our other investigative reporters to pursue this kind of difficult to report and hard to tell story.

“They are an essential part of our mission,” he said

As Judd sat at the hearing, the judge gave Felder a chance to speak for herself, a moment that Judd was anxious to document.

“I want to live my life on the outside,” she said. “I want to work. I want to do good and hold my head up and do the right thing.”