16 June 2019

TORTOISE CASE FILE • STATE V FAMILY

  • Our case file on family separation started with a ThinkIn in The Bronx
  • It’s now one Tortoise’s biggest projects
  • We’re launching a “members’ panel” to bring our members closer to our journalism

This is the story of one piece of Tortoise journalism. Last summer, we held a ThinkIn in a restaurant in The Bronx, New York. It was about masculinity and the issues facing the city’s young men. A civil rights lawyer made an intervention in the kind of tone that cuts through the noise. People weren’t so scared of the police knocking on the door, she said. What families in the Bronx most feared was a different wing of the state; it was child protection workers, because that’s when you might face the worst and lose your children.

That one intervention set in train an extended piece of journalism, what we call a case file, on family separation. The term “family separation” was being applied to what was happening on the Mexican border in the US last summer. But what that ThinkIn in The Bronx brought to light was that this widely condemned practice is actually common in many countries. Mostly, it’s necessary to protect children from dangerous parents and done with the best intentions. But what happens when the state gets it wrong?

Since then, we have done the kind of journalism you’d expect: we’ve spoken to dozens of people with intimate knowledge of how the system works, to the parents who have been through it, to the social workers who support them and recommend interventions, to lawyers who fight their cases, to the policymakers and academics who think about the system, and to the judges who make the final call. We’ve trawled the research and data. We’ve sat in court for a week, watching the ebb and flow of everyday, heartbreaking cases.

But we’ve also done the journalism that makes Tortoise different. We invited the people at the heart of the system into the heart of our newsroom, the ThinkIn, to tell us what is happening. We’ve now held two ThinkIns in London and one in Sunderland, which have shaped the reporting.

We’ve published four pieces focused on the system in England: the first looking at how the numbers of children in care have increased dramatically, and how that has eroded trust in the system. That piece was titled ‘You never lose the fear of the knock on the door’ because that’s what one parent from the north east told our ThinkIn, echoing those words in The Bronx.

The second examining the data on family separation; the third explaining why there is so much variation across the country in the rates of family separation; and the fourth hearing the ways that families are dealing with the hardest decision the state has to make. We have more pieces planned and will return to The Bronx next month to report the story there.

That journalism is infused with the ideas we’ve heard in our ThinkIns. It’s infused with what makes Tortoise different – the notion of opening up our newsroom to create a different kind of journalism in which we inquire hand-in-hand with our members and repeatedly challenge our own thinking. We don’t publish according to random deadlines, but when we think we have something worth telling you.

This week we are trying something new and taking that collaborative form of journalism to the next level. Six of our members are joining a members’ panel to help steer the family separation case file over the course of the rest of this year. They all have a special interest in the subject and include a former and a current magistrate in the family courts, a family mediator, an open justice campaigner, a director of children’s services, a charity CEO and a police analyst.

Every couple of weeks, as this story and our reporting develops, we will check in with the panel, opening up our thinking and reporting to new ideas. We at Tortoise retain our editorial independence, but we do it from a more humble position where we are open to challenge and different perspectives.

We wanted to share this example of how we are doing our journalism differently, on an important, under-reported and misunderstood issue, with our membership. Do get in touch if you want to be involved.

Photograph by Getty Images