Sunshine laws light our way

When we reported last summer that a child had died after being left in a day care center van, readers reacted strongly to the tragedy.

It got us thinking about just how safe children are at Georgia day cares.

One of our reporters, Tim Eberly, spent some time looking into it.

And through the use of public records and Georgia’s “Sunshine” laws that require open government, he put a spotlight on the issue.

Eberly’s reporting revealed that thousands of day care centers failed to meet the state’s standards for children’s health and safety.

He also showed that the state Department of Early Care and Learning, or DECAL, which regulates the day care industry in Georgia, rated day cares for health and safety for four years without ever sharing the information with the public.

Using the opportunity provided by state laws, Eberly obtained thousands of records of the ratings and demonstrated that hundreds of centers had violated health and safety rules for years. Twenty-nine were found to be noncompliant four years in a row.

The commissioner who oversees the Department of Early Care and Learning, who was appointed to the job in 2011, said he has requested an outside review of some agency policies.

I’m recalling Eberly’s compelling work for two reasons. He’s working on another story about this issue that we plan to publish March 18. And today is Sunshine Sunday, a joint project of the American Society of News Editors and other news organizations. Its goal is to bring attention to the importance of laws that assure public access to government and enable us to keep you informed.

It’s important to note that these laws give all citizens access to this information, not just media organizations. At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we often tangle with public officials for access, and we have resources for such a fight when private citizens might not. For example, the newspaper’s tab for obtaining public records for this investigation is about $2,000.

Elsewhere in the paper today, we focus on the importance of open government and its necessity for the investigative reporting you count on.

Readers tell us that watching out for the effectiveness of government and other community institutions is one of the most important things that we do.

It’s table stakes for a newspaper and our readers tell us that they don’t believe other media sources can or will provide this kind of deep coverage. Readers are concerned not just about public safety issues like day care or scandals like Atlanta Public Schools test cheating or corruption among politicians, but also about the effective use of tax dollars and government waste in general.

In the past few years, we’ve ramped up accountability reporting so we can provide a steady dose of watchdog and investigative stories. A team of nine reporters and editors focuses exclusively on this kind of reporting for our Sunday newspaper; additionally, our city and county government reporters, and reporters covering schools and other government institutions develop these kinds of stories.

“We have more investigative reporters than most regional newspapers, but there are so many things that we could be looking into that we need to be choosy,” said Sunday Editor Charles Gay, who oversees the investigative team. “We want to make sure we’re spending our time on stories that will be meaningful for readers.”

“In that spirit, the day care story seemed like a natural,” Gay said. “What’s more important than the safety of our children? Both the day care providers and state regulators bear a sacred responsibility and we knew there would be records showing what kind of job they do.”

We get a lot of positive feedback from our readers when we do this kind of work, which tells us that they’d like to have more of it.

Said one reader: “I know you have to put your neck out there to report such information, but it is necessary! Keep digging!!!”

We believe this is so important that we’re increasing our commitment. We’re adding two journalists in this area, and we’re providing sophisticated training to our staff on topics like analyzing government databases.

I hope you’ll find March to be an especially rich month for these kinds of stories.

I’ve already mentioned the upcoming child-care story, and we’ll have others.

We’ll publish an important follow-up on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered that story, pursuing it for years to finally reveal the breadth of the problems.

I think you’ll be interested in what else we’ve found since then.

Discuss this column and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of other areas at editor Kevin Riley’s Facebook page. Visit

About the Author

Editors' Picks