Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Last month, I opened my inbox to a newsletter from a familiar name, this time attached to an unexpected publication. As a native of the part of Illinois I like to call “about two hours from St. Louis if you’re slow, three from Nashville, and five from Chicago,” I’m long familiar with Molly Parker’s writing for The Southern Illinoisan. (Her name was particularly fresh in my mind, as this story from March alerted me to the fact that my visceral childhood memory of holding a baby tiger in the Marion Mall wasn’t just typical midwestern-shopping-center fare, but the creation of Mr. Joe Exotic himself. I’m still shocked that the tiger pups left a stronger impression than the mullet.) 

This time, however, I was encountering her work for ProPublica. As a member of that investigative journalism shop’s Local Reporting Network since 2017, Molly is currently reporting on issues of child welfare in rural Illinois. Writing on the crucial distinction between child “abuse” and “neglect,” her recent stories raise big questions about the relationship of the state to the children it’s meant to protect. Focused on the Schott family of Alto Pass, Illinois, this joint work of The Southern and ProPublica investigates the utility of child-welfare home-removals, and leads readers to ask what might truly serve families in places like southern Illinois, where poverty rates are high and services are hard to come by.

Enjoy our conversation about the changing news landscape of our home region and what we mean when we say “child abuse,” below. 

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: So I know you’re from southern Illinois, and that you work at The Southern Illinoisan now – can you walk me through your career and how you ended up back home?

Molly Parker, general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan. (Photo provided.)

Molly Parker: I’ve been at The Southern Illinoisan since 2014, and I graduated from Southern Illinois University in 2003. After that I went to the University of Illinois at Springfield and got a master’s degree in Public Affairs reporting. From there in my early 20s, and 30s I worked in a few different states, as well as upstate Illinois. I’ve worked in Charleston, South Carolina, Jackson, Mississippi, and Raleigh, North Carolina. In 2014, I was working at the Statehouse in Raleigh for a newspaper in Wilmington when I found out they were going to close the bureau and move me to Wilmington. I wasn’t sure I wanted to move again, and there happened to be an opening back home. My parents are still here, so I took a job back home and it’s been really great ever since I came back.

DY: Gotcha. So it was pretty circumstantial.

MP: Yeah, I think there just happened to be an opening. And I was like, “Yeah, I’ll try that,” you know? Really, since I’ve been home, I haven’t wanted to leave again. I settled in here. And I ended up getting married and having kids so that obviously changes things as well.

DY: How has news reporting in the area changed since you’ve been back? I’m from nearby West Frankfort, and I know that our long-running daily paper closed when I was in high school. How has that changing small town news landscape impacted the regional paper? What have you observed in your career?

MP: I mean, even when I came in 2014, which wasn’t that many years ago, we had probably triple the number of staff in news and sports that we do now. So we’ve seen a major reduction over the last eight years or so just at The Southern Illinoisan. You know, there are several really good papers that continue to serve the region, but like you said, several of them have also just not been able to make it and have closed down. Some of the other daily newspapers are consolidated or have been sold to different companies. And I think everyone’s in the same boat and just struggling to keep staff and cover the region. I think there’s still a really good core group of people that are doing the job and trying to do the job, but it certainly isn’t what it used to be in terms of sheer numbers of reporters out there, covering city council meetings and school boards and those kinds of things. I think you can definitely tell the difference.

DY: How does that change the priorities of your job? How do you know what goes and what stays, and how do you think about those tradeoffs?

MP: It definitely means you have to prioritize differently. I think when you have enough people, it’s a great public service that you can be at every city council meeting, every government meeting, every county board meeting, every school board meeting, even if there’s not major news breaking.

Parker holds her twins Martin (left), and Nolan.(Photo provided.)

You’re doing a service to the people in that community just by letting them know day to day what’s going on, and you’re guaranteed to be there when there is big news as well. Because you don’t get a press release that says the school board’s gonna do something controversial today. But now you don’t have that luxury because reporters just can’t work 24/7 all day all night, every single day. So you just pick and choose what you go to. You just try to do your best to work your beat and stay tuned-in to what’s going on. And you accept that not every paper or media outlet is going to be able to cover everything. So sometimes if the Carbondale Times is covering something, The Southern covers something else. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have as much coverage, but I think you can prioritize a little differently and try to find the things that are of interest to the public through different means.

DY: So with that context, I’m curious about how you ended up working with ProPublica and the kind of opportunity that represents for your local reporting. How do you see the resources of ProPublica impacting your current goals with The Southern?

MP: Well, I feel like I got really lucky to get paired up with ProPublica. Like I said, you know, we just have fewer people and we’re trying to do more with less. I don’t want to sugarcoat it because I really think the decline of the number of reporters is just a disservice, plain and simple in the world of journalism. At the same time, I think there are journalists out there trying to figure out how to make local journalism work and really smart editors and other people who are working on this problem. And I think ProPublica is a part of the solution. So I’m just grateful that I got hooked up with them. They picked me to be in their local reporting network first in 2018 – we’d been working on a series of stories out of Cairo, Illinois about public housing, so we applied to continue our work around public housing in small towns because we felt like that was an issue people weren’t paying attention to. I spent a year traveling around the region and really even the country and covering housing issues in small- and mid-sized towns and just learned so much. I got flown to New York City for the first time – I hadn’t been there before. We spent a week working on a news app where anyone can look up the grade that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had given their public housing complex. We made all this data accessible that was publicly available but really hidden because you had to know where it was and how to interpret it. So that was just a really neat experience, to learn about the things that were possible and to have all of these resources. I think there was a team of around 10 people that spent the whole week working on my project. That was just unheard of for us and really, really cool to watch happen. And then they picked us again to do a three year fellowship that started last year. This time the topics are more open ended, so we’ve been working on a series on child welfare and we have some other stuff in the works.

DY: One of those pieces on child welfare was just released in April, so I wanted to talk to you about that story. How’d you get interested in covering the Department of Children and Family Services, and how did the disproportionate rates of neglect cases in Southern Illinois come to your attention?

MP: I have heard since I moved back in 2014 – it wasn’t something that was on my radar as a kid or as a young adult in college – a lot of talk about how southern Illinois has child abuse rates that are two, three and four times the rates of some other counties upstate and much higher than the statewide rates of child abuse. So I have always been really curious about that, and our paper has covered that issue on more than one occasion. We’ve given special coverage for Child Abuse Awareness Month, and there are all kinds of marches and press conferences and courthouse walks around to try to bring attention to it. So I was curious as to why the trends persisted if we knew this was the case. Why is it that after all of these years that this is still going on? I even wondered, is there something different about people in Southern Illinois that is causing us to be more stressed, or to act negatively toward our children in a way that other people across the state are not? But I found that hard to believe because I’ve lived in a lot of places and families are largely the same here, and in Peoria, and in Chicago. Families everywhere have different struggles, so I found it hard to believe that there was some moral failing of families in Southern Illinois that could cause these high child abuse rates.

I decided to look into it, and it turns out it’s a really complex issue as to why rates vary a lot even county to county in Southern Illinois. But we did generally find that in the regions that had the highest child abuse rates, it was actually neglect cases that were driving the highest numbers. We also found that when you looked at southern Illinois, there was a disproportionate amount of neglect cases compared to the rest of the state, especially when it comes to repeat cases. Like I said, this is all really complex and can have a lot to do with individual investigators, attitudes toward families in different places, and who’s calling in the complaints county to county. But generally we found that this area has the highest poverty rates which can go hand in hand with neglect. That is absolutely not to say that living in poverty causes you to neglect your children, but it is a risk factor because it’s really stressful to live in poverty. When you maybe can’t afford childcare, or you’re lacking transportation, all of these struggles can really pile up on families. Then you add in other difficulties like mental illness or substance abuse and the difficulties getting necessary treatment that often follow. All of these things cross socioeconomic boundaries – there are lots of rich and middle income people struggling with drug abuse as well – but generally, money makes problems easier to solve. It’s easier to get childcare, for example, while you’re trying to get the issues in your life taken care of. But for people who are experiencing poverty, oftentimes those challenges are made a lot more difficult. And so their families are at higher risk for or neglect cases and the consequences that follow.

DY: You wrote about this in the column that accompanied this story, but I’m wondering if we could just get a clear breakdown of the difference between “neglect” and “abuse” and how those things get conflated in the public dialogue about child welfare.

MP: Personally, I think I knew that they were different, but before this research I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Because really, they are often said in the same breath. Shorthand, neglect is often referred to as child abuse. In southern Illinois, when we would talk about our rates being high, you would often just people hear people say “child abuse rates.” But I think it’s really important to separate the two and to clearly say what is it that we’re trying to protect kids from. It’s important to know that we’re applying the right medicine to the problem. So removing children from their homes is obviously sometimes the only option. That’s, I’m sure, a really difficult call to make, but it’s for situations where a child is being physically abused and is at imminent physical danger. Even in severe neglect cases, you may have situations where the children have to be removed, but so much of child welfare work is actually about trying to keep families together – that is the ultimate goal. But the systems aren’t really set up to do that, and they’re so swamped with so many cases that it’s hard to differentiate between, “This is a family that needs help and we can get them to the right resources,” versus, “This is a family who’s intentionally hurting our children, or, even if it’s not intentional, the situation is so severe that the children are at risk.” I think they end up removing a lot of kids that probably don’t have to be removed, or wouldn’t have to be if the service array was stronger in our area.

But to really answer your question, I think we need a big conversation about how we’re confusing neglect with poverty. Not just in Illinois, but in America. There are a lot of really smart people writing about that, how if we could help people overcome the conditions of poverty, they wouldn’t be reported for neglect. Sometimes, too, it’s actually just complete bias on the part of the reporter. For instance, going into a home and saying, “Well, I wouldn’t want to live like that. So I’m going to accuse you of neglect.”

The column also was addressing a sort of secondary factor, which is that we have also totally conflated abuse and neglect because we say them as if they’re the same thing: child abuse. So we’ve missed that we’re talking about people who are sometimes “neglecting” their kids through no fault of their own because they don’t have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. So that is just a really important distinction to make. It wasn’t my original thought – it was even attributed in there to the director of the Department of Children and Family Services back in the 90s and early 2000s, when Illinois had the highest foster care rates in the nation. So a lot of these conversations advocates have been having for a long time, but I think it’s really interesting to also hear former directors and politician types acknowledging now that this system isn’t working.

DY: What’s next for you in terms of reporting on this beat and working with ProPublica? More broadly, what are you interested in right now?

MP: I’m interested in continuing to write stories about child welfare – we’re definitely going to be doing more of that. I’m interested in the intersection of housing access with these stories, and how it can play into people having their kids removed unnecessarily or having a delay in reunification. Also how victims of domestic violence are treated by the child welfare system, and what happens when you have an abuse dynamic between adult partners. In general, we’re just trying to raise some questions about what could be done that would be more helpful for families. We know that sometimes children do have to be removed, but that is an extremely traumatic event in and of itself – it’s not an easy answer to fix the problem.

At the same time, we’re trying to get local people to write their own stories that are important regionally. In Chicago there’s still a pretty healthy and vibrant city press corps, and so it’s really important to me to try to get more coverage downstate in southern and central Illinois, where there are huge swaths of no-man’s-land where no one is covering what’s going on. So we’re trying to do some more in-depth things that affect people in small cities and towns across rural Illinois. What’s important to me is making sure we don’t just situate issues like childcare or education or housing as city problems because these are also things that people are struggling with in rural areas and small towns.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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