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A terrifying story of domestic abuse posed agonizing challenges for USA Today team

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A terrifying story of domestic abuse posed agonizing challenges for USA Today team

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Latrelle Huff with her ex-boyfriend and their twins at the babies’ baptism in 2014. (Photo: Family photo via USA TODAY)
Latrelle Huff with her ex-boyfriend and their twins at the babies’ baptism in 2014. (Photo: Family photo via USA TODAY)

USA TODAY's Jayne O'Donnell is joining us today to speak to 2019 California Fellows on the legal, emotional and ethical challenges of reporting on domestic violence. But we've also asked O'Donnell to share key insights from reporting her 2018 National Fellowship project with Mabinty Quarshie with our online readers. Read on to learn how the team overcame serious hurdles to tell a new story of how children are impacted by domestic violence. — Ed.

The police told Latrelle Huff of Savannah, Georgia, that she needed the media to draw attention to her reports against her abusive former boyfriend.

She contacted USA TODAY after she saw the headlines about domestic violence allegations by two ex-wives of former White House staff secretary Rob Porters. She had suffered years of domestic violence and rape and alleged the last assault led to the birth of her twin toddlers. But neither the pregnancy nor the birth stopped the abuse.

Nearly a year later, the picture of an overwhelmed Huff filled much of the space above the fold of the print version of USA TODAY, where the 4,400-word story detailed the mental and physical toll exposure to domestic violence has on children.

That’s not because we decided to “advocate” for Huff, but because we thought she had such a powerful — and hard to reconcile — story to tell. As importantly, it told a much larger story about the fate of children ensnared in custody disputes that involve domestic violence.

Domestic abusers are equal opportunity offenders, so this was a story that all of our readers needed to read, including wealthy women, lower-income people of color, policy makers, health care providers, lawyers and judges.

My colleague Mabinty Quarshie and I combed through dozens of academic reports and even more police reports, court records and child welfare documents to tell the story of how the health of children like Huff’s is affected by the family violence they experience, from the time they are in utero through their childhoods.

The effect, says one report, is as serious as it would be if they were abused themselves. They are at the same risk and incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder as soldiers returning from combat.

A long, lesson-filled road led to publication of the story.

Huff’s story had its own White House connection. Her former boyfriend was an undocumented Mexican immigrant which, to me, seemed newsworthy given President Trump’s regular reminders about those entering this country illegally from Mexico. Along with allegations of domestic violence and rape, her ex was accused in family court of possessing child pornography.

Her story — far more complicated than I can report here for some of the ethical reasons I explore below — seemed like a grave injustice. Here was someone in this country illegally with a stack of police reports, a conviction on domestic violence charges, and an ex-girlfriend who was terrified of what he would do to her and her children. (He has since completed a diversion program that kept a domestic violence conviction off his record.)

Yet Trump’s rhetoric was no match for the troubled family court system that critics say puts mothers and children at an often life-threatening disadvantage.

It required far too much journalistic contortion, however, to tell Huff’s story through the lens of Trump’s immigration policy than my editors thought worked. They also were understandably reluctant to throw the weight of the biggest circulation newspaper behind telling one family’s story when the larger story is counterintuitive. Part of it was also editors’ nervousness about relying heavily on one side of he-said, she-said stories when there is little documented proof.

So I agreed to save her experience for the fellowship project, for which it fit perfectly.

A perfect solution? Not exactly. Huff was beyond devastated.

She lived in fear for her children while they were on their biweekly “supervised” visits with their father at her mother and stepfather’s house. As Huff told police, her ex had threatened to take the children to New Mexico. She didn’t believe he was being watched for two full weekend days and the children’s more erratic-than-usual behavior after visits only heightened her fears.

I had failed her just like the rest of the system had.

I had been certain the story would run. It had already gone through the lawyer a couple times and I had called her ex’s lawyer for comment, something that Huff was afraid would trigger another round of violence and potential risk to the children. I made a critical mistake in not warning her the story might not run, or might not run for weeks or months and would not necessarily tell her story the way she’d want it told.

It would take months to get Huff to feel comfortable talking to me again, and a whole lot more to get her to understand that I’d have to talk to her family members who so stunningly had written letters to family court supporting her ex having visitation with the children. Worse yet for her, I had to explain that I couldn’t report some of what she believed was going on, for ethical reasons on our end.

This was a complicated story. Huff’s very Christian family believes she should have forgiven her ex, just as her older sister forgave the father who allegedly regularly abused her and their mother, and how her mother forgave the man who subjected her to extreme verbal abuse and beatings of his own mother when she was pregnant with Huff. Her mother also faulted Huff for “taking matters into her own hands” by reporting abuse and said in an interview that Huff should “let God handle it.”

I wanted to explore that dynamic more in a sidebar or second-day story, but while our editor didn’t rule it out altogether, he was uncomfortable with spending that much space writing about private people’s private lives.

Mabinty and I both interviewed women who survived domestic violence and who we hoped to include in this story but didn’t make it in. That even includes one who was asked repeated details of the life and death of her young daughter at the hands of her ex-husband (who killed himself). She was cut from the story the day before it ran. I have grown used to that, but it’s still hard.

Editors also challenged us to tell them what was new or surprising about the fact that growing up amidst domestic violence was bad for kids. That inspired us to deliver in a big way. In our case, though, it wasn’t deep data dives or analyses that led to the powerful numbers, but rather blanketing the top experts in the bigger-than-expected field of domestic violence and children. By asking many of them what the newest and most convincing data was, we were able to offer those editors the “news” they (and readers, of course) wanted and to get as much space as we did for a non-traditional investigative project.

Overall, it was a challenging but very worthwhile project to undertake. It suffered from a lack of attention during a period of upheaval at our company that included buyouts, layoffs, an attempted hostile takeover, and rumors of a possible sale or merger. Too much work was compressed in the last month, but that seems to be the case even with the best laid plans and highest levels of organizational support.

That said, Mabinty and I will be meeting more frequently with each other and our editors during the next project, as that can only help.

With that in mind, here are five ways to reduce stress and miscommunication:

  • Manage expectations — your own and your subjects. Bearing the weight of other people’s life or death problems is a lot for anyone to bear. Parents who believe their children are in danger physically (including sexually) and mentally are understandably relentless in their campaign to keep the kids away from the threat.
  • Weigh the news value against subjects’ privacy expectations. Intergenerational domestic violence is very common and very compelling as story material. But, as with incest, exploring why it occurs may well get deeper into families’ personal lives than many editors want to go, ethically or legally.
  • Resist predictions on stories’ timing and impact. Couch everything you say and commit to nothing when it comes to content and timing.
  • Consider the safety of all involved. These stories involve very violent people. Nearly 700 children have been killed by a parent during divorce and custody disputes.
  • Work on your own mental health. This is very heavy material to feel — and be — responsible for. Take time for yourself. Read and watch comedy and other media on light subjects. Walk, exercise and get a good night’s sleep.

And remember, you can’t save — or cover — everyone.

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