As 2017 comes to an end, Carolina Public Press looks back on its top stories of the year. These are not necessarily individual stories, but narratives that in some cases kept evolving and expanding after the first telling. CPP’s journalists planned some of these as investigative series. Others followed events that continued to unfold in unpredictable ways. CPP staff members and freelance contributors wrote some of these independently, not envisioning the various stories as related or unified, but looking back they cluster around important recognizable themes, so that they appear as part of one larger story.
How CPP ranked stories
In trying to rank CPP stories, the news team looked at two quantifiable criteria, while reserving the right to overrule the numbers if we felt a news item was especially deserving or undeserving. The criteria were:
- How many people read it? The CPP team could deduce this number from analytics calculations, provided by Google, which show page views for each article. These numbers also contain some useful subjective information. Some article received incredible attention on the day they appeared or perhaps the next day or two, but then faded from attention over time. Other articles picked up steam as time passed. If two of our stories were close on the pure numbers, those that demonstrated this staying power, then that increased its value for this list. The second criteria is closely related to this idea of staying power.
- How many times did CPP write or conduct a forum about it? If a story kept CPP’s journalists’ attention for more of the year instead of just making a one-time splash, then that also mattered.
1. Questionable Care: CPP’s coverage of adult care homes originated as a four-part investigative series published in July, after months of work.
The idea for the project grew out of our 2016 investigation of the Nutz R Us company, which operated three small Asheville adult care homes catering to mentally ill adults under its cynical corporate name. The new series looked statewide at adult care homes, which are North Carolina’s de facto “solution” to housing adults with mental illness. The series examined how the state defines these homes legally and the role they play, how the state oversees them and rates them, the most heavily fined adult care homes in North Carolina and federal and state litigation that could affect the future of adult care homes. CPP followed up a few weeks later with an interview with the head of the industry group that advocates for adult care homes. Later CPP reported on an apparent link between adult care homes and prescription opioids being diverted onto the black market. CPP also conducted a forum on this issue in July. CPP continues to gather records and conduct interviews on issues stemming from this series, so look for more reporting in 2018. A separate series of articles about a specific adult care home took on a life of its own and is also on this list as its own independent story.
2. Cedarbrook Residential Center: One of the most horrific state reports on adult care home violations didn’t make the main series in July because the “statements of deficiency” that the state Department of Health and Human Services had generated on this home were no longer in the DHHS database.
After the McDowell County-based company sued over the negative reports and harsh penalties in 2015 and 2016, the state settled, manufacturing a new spotless 4-star rating for a facility that the state had actually assigned zero stars. Whereas CPP looked at a massive online state database of thousands of adult care homes for the main series, for reporting on Cedarbrook, CPP had to request copies of records from the state, some of which the state had “removed” or the courts had designated as confidential. This required sometimes complicated negotiations with DHHS, the quasi-judicial Office of Administrative Hearings and the state Department of Justice. In some cases, the investigation moved forward in surprising ways when an isolated record, such as an email obtained for other reasons, revealed the existence of a previously unknown record. CPP’s initial story on the Cedarbrook case and settlement appeared in mid-October. In early November, just weeks after CPP’s initial report, the state again cracked down on the facility and Cedarbrook again took an appeal before an administrative law judge. That case is ongoing and could be an important story in 2018. Besides following the ongoing legal case, CPP also continues seeking records on issues related specifically to Cedarbrook.
3. Hospitals in Western North Carolina: This is a case of several loosely related story that point to one big issue.
Western North Carolina residents have limited access to health care in most communities, and are heavily dependent on a small number of health-care providers. Sometimes the news was positive, as in the case of an Avery County hospital that received a substantial state grant to expand its mental health services, as reported in June. At other times, the news was disturbing, as in the case of a major story on which CPP partnered with HuffPost, to look at a trend of closures of labor and delivery centers (aka maternity wards) in rural mountain counties in September. The two news organizations also partnered on a forum on women’s health that examined this issue. During reporting for labor and delivery closures story, CPP also talked with Asheville-based MissionHealth and insurance provider BlueCross BlueShield North Carolina about the standoff then unfolding very publicly between them. Finally, CPP was able to report on an end to that standoff in November, while looking at its heavy impact on public employees, who get benefits through BCBS but may life in areas where MissionHealth is the main provider of care.
4. Salaries of public employees: Toward the end of 2016, CPP began a series of articles on the salary levels of public employees in various categories.
The installments of this series that appeared in 2017 were especially well-received by readers. One article looked at the compensation rate for top employees of school systems throughout Western North Carolina, finding considerable differences in how school board members, superintendents and others are paid. The most popular installments in this series looked at cities and smaller towns. CPP asked what mayors and council members receive in pay, and then what the top 10 employees in each jurisdiction receive. The findings were all over the map and didn’t necessarily correlate in an obvious way to population. CPP has heard from readers in more than one town where these articles captured local attention and some boards have adjusted pay levels to be more appropriate for the size of the towns and pockets of their taxpayers.
5. Fired Child Protective Services supervisor: In February, CPP published a story on the case of Renee Crocker, whom Transylvania County fired in late 2015 as Child Protective Services supervisor with its Department of Social Services. Multiple articles have updated the case as it has proceeded through the courts.
After Crocker won an appeal of her termination at the state Office of Administrative Hearings, the county appealed to the Court of Appeals, which again ruled for Crocker. The county let Crocker go after she admitted to having inappropriate contact with a judge in a child custody case, in which Crocker interceded on behalf of her daughter’s boyfriend, a convicted felon with a record of multiple drug-dealing offenses. County officials testified that they terminated her for this indiscretion, not over a horrible report on the program she oversaw, which DHHS released a short time earlier. The courts said the county should not have terminated her for her contact with the judge alone, even though that situation merited some corrective action. The county appealed to the state Supreme Court, which refused to take up the case in November. In early December, Crocker petitioned to have county officials held in contempt for not reinstating her. The county approved a new job and back pay for her, but her lawyer told CPP a few weeks ago that it wasn’t her old job and wasn’t enough back pay. This story continues to evolve and should continue into 2018 and raises serious questions about the rights local governments versus the state, especially in the face of employees accused of serious misconduct, personal bias or gross incompetence in the conduct of their jobs.
6. National Forests: CPP has long been dedicated to continuous in-depth coverage of the National Forests in Western North Carolina.
The U.S. Forest Service is currently overhauling the land management plan, a process that’s been ongoing for several years and could have implications well into the future. This year CPP looked at multiple aspects of this issue in several stories. Those included continuing coverage of the ongoing process, especially how disagreements over wildlife policy have affected progress and the direction of the plan. CPP also looked closely at local political efforts to include or exclude certain wilderness designations. An October article examined how climate change is affecting the national forests in North Carolina. CPP looked at the potential impact if funding for conservation land acquisition dries up. Finally, a recent article explored cooperative efforts between the U.S. Forest Service and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who have thousands of years of expertise in managing the forests. No doubt additional stories will follow in 2018, which could be the pivotal year for determining the forest plan.
7. Joanne McDowell: It was just one story, but it captured reader attention and has continued to draw new readers nearly a year after it appeared in January.
Joanne McDowell, formerly of Hendersonville, sued her son’s father over alleged abuse during visitation. The North Carolina courts ruled against her and ordered the restoration of visitation with the father. But McDowell has said that she believed the courts misinterpreted powerful evidence of abuse and any further contact would result in additional serious harm against the young child. So she fled to Ontario. The Canadian courts looked at new evidence that the father had altered the evidence presented to the North Carolina courts and ruled in McDowell’s favor. The result is a standoff. McDowell will face arrest if she returns to the United States and the child’s father is banned from contacting him in Ontario. McDowell continues to petition various courts and agencies in North Carolina. An update in this case could come sometime in early 2018.
8. Tryon Counselor: A Tryon school counselor operating a personal enterprise apart from the schools by offering counseling services faced federal charges after signing up students as phony private patients and billing Medicaid.
The students had no knowledge of the activity and received no special services. But when federal authorities announced their crackdown, the Polk County schools were caught completely off-guard. A follow-up story appeared a few weeks ago after the counselor received a federal sentence. No students appear to have been affected, but the case was frightening for parents and school officials. School officials have said they hope that a case like this never comes up again but that federal officials will not blindside them again if it ever does.
9. Opioids: Opioids, from prescription painkillers to illegal heroin, have been in the news for some time as an “epidemic” of addictions and related problems continues, including overdose deaths, suicides, dangerous needle sharing and individuals and families reduced to poverty, crime, human trafficking and homelessness.
In 2017, CPP looked at multiple efforts by Buncombe County to combat the crisis in WNC’s most urban county, though it continues to plague more rural communities as well. One of the most interesting stories intersected with CPP’s ongoing coverage of adult care comes, which appeared at the top of this list. In October, CPP reported on the case of a convicted felon who obtained work in a Candler adult care home and diverted pain medications for mentally ill residents to the black market for resale. That ended, Buncombe County deputies said, when they caught up with him. But it raises serious questions about the lax regulation of quasi-medical facilities involved in administering medication to vulnerable populations, including many people with dementia who may not remember how often they missed receiving their pills over the last few weeks.
10. Trump invitations: One of the first stories CPP published in 2017 remained one of the most-read items throughout the year.
It may have been a story of minimal consequence, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing (meaning no disrespect to the writer who told the tale). But coming in the year of strong political polarization over the man in the White House, this story may have symbolized something important to many readers. An Asheville business with no apparent political leanings began receiving odd calls about President Trump’s inauguration. It turned out that a printing error involving an area code had resulted in invitations to an inauguration event going out with this business’ phone number printed as a contact. The mistake was that of the companies handling the printing and distribution of the invitations, not the Trump inaugural team. Regardless, the business found itself “flooded” with calls that tied up the phones at its small office. It may not be this story, but undoubtedly events surrounding the administration will break into Western North Carolina news again in 2018.
Editor’s Note: From the staff at Carolina Public Press to all of our readers and supporters, we wish you a very happy New Year.