Out of Compliance

Spotlight on Child-Abuse Law

FIRE-supported Freelancer Emily Palmer

With FIRE's help freelancer Emily Palmer, co-reporting with Jessica Huseman at ProPublica, won the prestigious Spotlight fellowship to report their story on compliance failures in federal child-abuse protections, which appeared in the Boston Globe on December 13, 2019. Here is the story behind the story.

When freelancer Emily Palmer first applied for a  FIRE Virtual Newsroom award, in May 2017, the FIRE Selection Committee did not choose her story about social-services problems in a vulnerable community.

She wanted to learn why. At a journalism conference she arranged a meeting with FIRE’s director, who explained. When she then floated another option, he explained why that wouldn’t work either.   

But Palmer was not done. She described one last story as the meeting broke up—an account of harrowing nationwide child abuse highlighting a systematic failure to enforce the nation's primary law for protecting children outside foster care.

This time she was invited to apply for an Editorial Consultancy; she was accepted; and, after another one-hour conversation, she secured a Virtual Newsroom award for grant funding and full services. 

The award offered a lifeline.

Palmer, working with a ProPublica colleague, Jessica Huseman, had previously made the final round for a 2016 Spotlight Fellowship, funded by proceeds from Participant Media—which enabled fellows to develop stories with the Boston Globe Spotlight investigative team. 

Spotlight judges had almost committed. While lauding the story’s potential, they predicted it couldn’t be done, because the reporters could never deliver on the necessary documentation, including the creation of two national databases. After this rejection, Palmer and Huseman had nursed the story on their Sundays off, with dim hopes of cobbling together the necessary support.

Then came the meeting with FIRE, and the Virtual Newsroom award. 

Over the months, the award did more than just provide a modest $5,000.


  • provided overall guidance on reporting strategy 
  • activated a longstanding collaboration with Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), to unearth missing data 
  • enlisted a partnership with the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press (RCFP), to effectively navigate open-records requests 
  • initiated an entirely new customized service—hours and hours of data entry by a FIRE contractor, Elibba Dean. 

Within a year and seeing enough data to make the project feasible, the judges awarded Palmer and Huseman the 2017 Spotlight Award.   

On December 13, 2019, the Boston Globe and ProPublica published their investigation—a sobering account of private abuse made possible by public neglect. Palmer and Huseman show how inadequate funding and unenforced federal legislation have left children in the hands of violent parents or care-givers, permitting a long-hidden pattern of heart-rending tragedies. In revealing deficiencies in a system to protect vulnerable children, their exposé also challenged national priorities and moral standards, with the potential to save countless lives. Read their story here.