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Stupid Case File for December 9, 2005

Phony Story Planted to Boost Donations

Courtesy of Image hosted by Photobucket.com

It was a heart-wrenching story: A 10-year-old boy named John, separated from his mother since the hurricane, was living with other foster children in an emergency shelter, and he had one Christmas wish — to go home.

"But there's no way I'll get gifts for Christmas. I don't even believe in Santa anymore," he was quoted as saying.

The Brazosport Facts ran the profile on its front page Nov. 29 as part of its Fill-a-Stocking series, which features a different foster child each day from Thanksgiving through Christmas and solicits donations for a local charity to help fulfill the child's holiday wish.

But the story was a work of fiction.

State caseworkers apparently made it up to tug at readers' heartstrings.

Dan Lauck, a reporter with KHOU-TV in Houston, discovered the story was phony after calling state officials to request an interview with the child. He believed that if the boy's story was told on television, the youngster might find his mother.

Lauck said his requests were repeatedly denied because of what he was told were privacy concerns. Eventually he was told that the boy was living with relatives. Finally, an agency spokesman told him the profile had been made up.

Caseworkers with state Child Protective Services in Brazoria County, outside Houston, were responsible for writing the profiles for the newspaper's charity drive, which has been a holiday fixture in the 19,000-circulation paper since 1982.

CPS has apologized to the paper, which immediately suspended its series and returned the $1,070 collected so far this year from donors.

Bill Cornwell, publisher of The Facts, said the newspaper trusted the agency to present accurate stories, and believed only minor changes — such as names and ages — were made to protect the children's privacy. Given privacy issues related to foster children, Cornwell said there was only so much verification the newspaper could do.

CPS is investigating how it all happened, spokesman Patrick Crimmins said.

Lauck said it does not appear the CPS caseworkers had any bad intentions.

"They were just trying to tell stories that would clearly tug at the heart, capture the emotions of the readers and inspire them to give more money," the TV reporter said. "But they did it in a way that misled the public."

Bob Steele, a former TV news director who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, said the problem could have been averted if the profiles had been done by reporters rather than caseworkers.

"The integrity of the paper is damaged, the good cause that was intended is eroded and those in need are then not served as they should be," Steele said.

Cornwell said his newspaper is now trying to determine whether previous stories were falsified, too. He said he does not understand why a caseworker would resort to fiction, since foster children's real stories that are compelling enough.

Meanwhile, he said some readers are frustrated with the newspaper for canceling the series and think The Facts abandoned the children.

"We are not going to walk away from the kids' needs monetarily," Cornwell said. But he said: "We are out to get to the bottom of the situation so people can trust what they read."


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