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Exclusive data analysis, reporting on child abuse reveal worrying pandemic trend, heartbreaking tale

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A true multiformat team of AP journalists — reporters, writers, photojournalists, video journalists, data journalists — produced this Only on AP piece by tracking down data on child abuse from every state to reveal a worrying trend: Reports of abuse are down while signs of severity are up. The team complemented that dogged data work and hard news with the tragic story of one girl who fell through the cracks during the pandemic.

The idea for this AP Exclusive began when video journalist Manuel Valdes in Washington state noted a drop in child abuse reports in Spokane. He instinctively asked for the entire state’s data on child abuse reports — in particular,those from school staff — and shared that information with fellow Seattle reporter Sally Ho.

Ho starting piecing together the framework for a national data analysis to quantify the drop in child abuse reports during the pandemic while also trying to gauge severity and other factors to give a full,contextualized picture about why such a trend is worrisome. She took that idea to AP’s inequality journalists,who green-lighted the project. Ho then drafted a query that statehouse reporters across AP sent to all 50 state agencies. Once data started rolling in,Ho and San Francisco data journalist Camille Fassett worked closely to analyze the data, share the workload and double-check each other when needed.

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A total of 36 states were analyzed for the project — ambitious for a project with so much incoming data from each state. The pair found that child abuse reports were down,as were reports by mandated reporting sources such as school staff — leaving vulnerable children at huge risk while out of sight during the pandemic. They also found signs that the severity of reports was up in several states. For news outlets wanting to localize their coverage, a data distribution was sent to AP members a couple of weeks before the rest of the project was published.

Meanwhile,over months,Ho also read through hundreds of child abuse reports from across the country,looking for a case that would illustrate the issues at hand. She found the case of 9-year-old Ava Lerario,killed by her father in a small Pennsylvania town. Ho worked from the West Coast for weeks to gain the trust of the girl’s family,young friends,neighbors — even the town police chief and school principal. She persuaded each source to speak with AP,on camera,as the team told Ava’s story amid the rest of the project’s findings. Ho flew cross-country,ultimately spending several days working with Philadelphia photojournalists Matt Rourke and Matt Slocum,and New York video journalist David Martin,gathering content in all formats to tell the story of how the system failed Ava, and what might have been done to save her.

The on-the-ground team reported heartbreaking details about Ava’s short life,her time in school,and the friends and family she left behind. Ho also delivered accountability reporting via documents and interviews showing how the school,police,and child protective services responded to the case and what red flags they seem to have missed,including past welfare reports on the family, the father’s mental health and his criminal record/warrants.

The team’s package was showcased with a strong online presentation by top stories producer Samantha Shotzbarger. The piece drew remarkably high reader engagement on apnews.com and landed on at least 10 newspaper front pages. Some news outlets ran editorials based on AP’s findings,and many localized the work using the AP data distribution.

AP regional news director Ravi Nessman,a leader in inequality journalism,said Ho’s “patience and tireless work paid off with a story in the real spirit of what we are trying to do — give a voice to the voiceless.” For doing precisely that,Ho and colleagues Valdes,Fassett,Rourke, Slocum and Martin share this week’s Best of the States award.

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