Mercer University journalism alumna Rylee Kirk has been recognized for her work investigating failures of child protective services leading up to multiple deaths.
Her reporting found that child protective services in Oswego County, New York, ignored or did not properly investigate complaints of child abuse in cases that ended in the starvation of a teen with cerebral palsy, the smothering of a baby, and the death of a mother and her 13-year-old son in a house fire, among others. In the case of the fire, the woman’s 17-year-old son survived.
“When I read the report, I remember sitting there and just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this poor kid had to jump out of a window (and) run outside for help,’” said Kirk, a reporter for Syracuse.com and The Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York.
“And (before the fire), the CPS workers would go to the house, knock on the door, and the mom would say, ‘Oh, they’re sleeping.’ These kids hadn’t been out of the house in over a year, and it was very heartbreaking.”
Kirk’s story about the fire deaths, “Did Angela and Lance have to die? How caseworkers missed the red flags of child neglect,” co-written with Michelle Breidenbach, won Best Multimedia Story from the Syracuse Press Club and a Distinguished Investigative Reporting award from the New York State Publisher’s Association.
Kirk also won the Syracuse Press Club’s A. Brohmann Roth Newcomer Award, which “recognizes hard work, promising potential and raw talent.”
Kirk and Breidenbach’s award-winning story detailed multiple instances in which people documented and reported danger and neglect they saw at the home. Out-of-state family called the child abuse hotline with concerns about the mother’s mental health, the woman’s landlord sent caseworkers photos of piles of garbage and dog waste inside the house, and school staff reported the boys weren’t attending school.
Meanwhile, child protective services opened and closed cases, ignoring basic rules in the state’s caseworker training manual, Kirk’s reporting showed. The county social services commissioner told reporters in a written statement that the state report referred to in the article did not tell the whole story about her staff’s work on the case.
For the story, Kirk and two other reporters drove 10 hours from New York to Virginia to interview the woman’s parents, the surviving son and her eldest son, who did not live with his mother. The family members were angry at the system for failing mother and son but hoped telling their story would help save another family, Kirk said.
“It was very emotional in that this is a heart-wrenching story but also the fact that they’ve accepted that there is nothing that can happen for them but that someone else might benefit,” she said.
Kirk graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2020. She went on to receive a master’s degree in investigative journalism from Arizona State University in 2021 and started work at Syracuse.com and The Post-Standard that same year.
Kirk credits her Mercer education with getting her to where she is today. At the University, she learned reporting basics, database skills, ethics and the importance of getting involved in her community.
“Every day I use something that I learned at Mercer,” she said.
Debbie Blankenship, director of the University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, said Kirk’s success is the kind journalism faculty want for all of their students.
“I am thrilled to hear she credits some of her foundational Mercer classes for her success,” Blankenship said. “We teach students about open records and open government because it makes good journalists, but it also makes good citizens.”