The tales came tumbling in from across the state, details horrific. Hundreds of elderly Minnesotans were being beaten, molested, and stolen from at assisted living centers.
Their complaints would land at the state’s Office of Health Facility Complaints, a dysfunctional agency both underfunded and overwhelmed. Thousands went uninvestigated, never relayed to county prosecutors. The files piled high in unattended stacks. Some were simply dumped unread into recycling bins. Crimes against Minnesota’s elderly were being treated with no more concern than Comcast treats complaints about its cable service.
Then came Star Tribune reporter Chris Serres. Two years ago, he began noticing a rise in abuse complaints at senior facilities, a tenderly regulated industry increasingly under the control of large corporations, which bring with them an ethic of low staffing and high profits.
Serres spent months meeting with families from across Minnesota, listening to “very serious incidents of criminality—rape, very serious beatings, and the like.” When they complained to the state, they would hear nothing for weeks, months, if at all.
“It’s very difficult for people to bear witness to their suffering,” Serres says. “People would break down and get really emotional when they described what happened to their loved ones.”
The result was a remarkable five-part series the Star Tribune ran in November. It found that the state hadn’t bothered to investigate a stunning 2,300 claims of abuse.
To its credit, Minnesota acted swiftly. A new health commissioner was named. A panel composed of senior advocates and family members issued a host of recommendations to improve safety, ranging from tougher sentences for abusers to barring assisted living centers from capriciously evicting those who complain. Legislators from both parties are promising immediate remedies.
For Serres, the Pulitzer-worthy series was a triumph of journalism at its best—illuminating the suffering of those without power, while forcing those with it to come to their aid. Though he would never frame it that way. “I’ll just say, selfishly, that it’s reassuring there’s actual real change happening.”
Serres is a thoughtful, introspective man, the antithesis of the bombast and self-aggrandizement that’s come to characterize media. He’s a former business reporter and labor organizer, a son of rural Oregon whose seven brothers and sisters grew up to be environmental activists. If anything, he’s simply grateful he gets to do this work.
Had his series appeared somewhere in Alabama, he says, it might not have made a ripple, buried under apathy and a government controlled almost solely by business interests. But Minnesota still possesses a “civil society,” he notes. “There’s a great deal of good will here. You can actually shame people into doing the right thing. I don’t know if you can say that in most parts of the country anymore.”
Which perhaps is why he’s willing to share a bit of shame of his own. After the series ran, readers pelted him with a recurring criticism: Yes, you went after the state, but you seemed to give the industry a pass.
It’s a fair shot, says Serres. One of the media’s great faults is its unwillingness to investigate corporations with the same zeal it does the government, he concedes.
So Serres is still on the story. The industry that allowed all this to happen now looms much larger in his sightlines.
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