Last summer, national media focused on a new law in Tennessee which defined illegal behavior while pregnant as a crime chargeable with assault. The law allows up to 15 years in prison as punishment for narcotic drug use while pregnant which opponents feared would drive pregnant drug users underground. For an Investigative Fund story published in The Nation, Rachael Levy and Rosa Goldensohn traveled to Tennessee to investigate whether these fears had been realized and found that pregnant women were unable to access drug treatment programs and were afraid to give birth in hospitals, leading some to take desperate measures to keep their children. —Queen Arsem-O‘Malley
Rosa Goldensohn: My name’s Rosa Goldensohn. I am now a reporter for DNAInfo New York, which is a local website. At the time we did this story, I was a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, that’s the City University of New York.
Rachael Levy: My name is Rachael Levy, I’m currently a reporter at Absolute Return; we’re a trade publication covering the US hedge fund industry here in New York, and I met Rosie as a grad student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, also in New York.
Queen Arsem-O’Malley: This story is about the effects of criminalizing basically an entire population of women in Tennessee, and your subjects were the people who were going underground to escape the surveillance of the state. How did you find and contact these sources for your story?
RL: We started very broadly—we hadn’t covered this issue before. I had never been to Tennessee before — I think Rosie had — but we hadn’t reported there before on this issue. So we started very broad. First, we’re just reading everything we can about the law and just anything and everything and contacting every organization, every person pretty much that’s cited in these stories and just starting from there, from New York, making tons of phone calls and doing as many kind of informational interviews as we can. Then we got to Tennessee, and we went for a week and it was just jam-packed every day, we had meetings set up and we asked everybody we could, “Hey do you know any women who were affected by this?” Okay, you have a friend of a friend? Can you put me in touch with them? And that was a very hard process, you know, getting people who were willing to speak with us, to trust us. But I think that was the only way we could — we had to be there on the ground so people could see us in person, know who we were, also.
RG: I think we started with the obvious stakeholders, like advocacy organizations. There’s certain national organizations that will have branches, like the ACLU, and then other national organizations that work on this, like NAPW [National Advocates for Pregnant Women]. And then from there, they know about local organizations on the ground, so then NAPW pointed us to Cherisse Scott, who was in Memphis, who’s doing local work with impacted people, and then from there she’ll connect us with other people who are on the ground. And I think the big leap is always from people who provide the services to people who are really impacted, and not that that always is a huge leap because there are some places where services are provided by impacted people, especially in the drug treatment world, but there’s also often a big gap so I think that got bridged in a few different creative ways. I mean, we reached out to anyone who was quoted in any local news, we Google Alerted for every person that was arrested, we had key words for any kind of local coverage. So we relied a lot, actually, on local media because anytime a local person was mentioned who was arrested we found them, we tried to find them, we tried to talk to them, and one person that we talked to who connected us to another source was somebody who the Tennesseean had interviewed. We followed other peoples’ trails so a couple people we talked to came through advocates, and we also did just some really direct outreach like going to methadone clinics in the morning when people go to get their dose, and we talked to people. So we went where we knew people who were affected would be.
QAO: And when you’re talking to these sources, you’re from out of town, you’re talking to them about very personal issues and often maybe even dangerous for them to be talking about. How did you build your relationships and trust with these sources when you were talking to them?
RL: For me, I just try to be as sensitive as I can and as understanding as I can; I don’t want to come off as judgmental. Rosie can speak to this a little bit more, but there’s a lot of kind of ingrained stereotypes that we learn about drug users, language that we say even “being clean.” So instead of “Are you trying to get clean?” you ask, “Are you still using?” Terms like that. That was something that I had to learn also so I don’t want to be judging people, I don’t want to scare anyone off obviously, but I also want to be a human being, understand where someone else is coming from. So I think that helped and — this is something I mentioned to you a little earlier — but I think also I’m not sure if a male reporter could have gotten the same access that Rosie and I were able to because these are reproductive issues — this law targets women only. I think it’s something that would have been a lot harder for a male reporter to find and to talk about.
RG: I think that we were very conscious of the fact that this is an incredibly stigmatized behavior. All drug use is so stigmatized and so we proceeded with that knowledge all the time, that okay, I know that whoever I’m about to talk to is expecting me to be coming at them with a certain set of beliefs about who they are, they may have those beliefs, they may have a lot of really negative feelings about the content of what I’m going to ask them about. So I personally try to really counteract that. I said to Jamillah Falls — who you might know has gone to prison now — when I first interviewed her, “I don’t think you’re a bad person for using drugs.” I don’t know journalistically what my professors would say about that, but I think that the assumption is so strong, especially people who’ve been kind of roasted in the press. People are used to being very antagonized by the press for criminal behavior, so I personally tried to counteract that a lot and also to use the language that people who use drugs use, and not talk about quote-unquote “these women.” I said to Rachael, “We’re not saying ‘these women’ anymore.” There’s just something monolithic about it that I really don’t like. So I think that’s part of it, and we were very conscious like, “okay, these women have been grilled on what they do and don’t do by law enforcement, there’s a law enforcement part of that, and we’re not going to sound like a prosecutor.”
QAO: And so before you met some of these sources in person, you friended them on Facebook and had used some other online ways to research them and contact them. Is this a strategy that you’d used before, and how do you think it played into then building a relationship with them when you got to Tennessee?
RL: The timeline is a little bit different on that. We did use Facebook a lot to find, to connect with some of the women — we’d get these Google Alerts saying there’s been another arrest, and so we’d scour online to see whatever we can find — is there any way to contact her? But I feel like we did most of that after we went to Tennessee, and to me being able to contact them through social media, for one it shows especially if I’m not there in person, shows I’m a real person, they can see my photos, my life, just as I can see theirs, I guess. It was just one way to just start the conversation and say listen, I’m coming from an understanding place. As Rosie was saying, I’m not here to judge you, I’m not here to get you in trouble, I’m not a prosecutor. I’m here to understand your story, and I want my story that I will eventually write to reflect your side, what you’ve been going through because that’s, a lot of times, what’s been missing in the conversation. So I’d start with something like that and then usually from there I’d get a phone number, schedule a time to talk, that kind of thing.
RG: I think we relied very heavily on Facebook. In this and in other stories I’ve done, I find it incredibly useful for getting your hands on people that otherwise, even the fancy Accurint, pay money kind of services often will have a landline that’s dead for people but you can somehow find them — you can kind of combine forces where you can’t find them the first time you look on Facebook, but you can find a family member on Accurint and find that family member on Facebook and as you go through that family member’s friends, you can find them under a different name or you can find another family member who will talk to you. So that’s how we got a hold for example of the sister of Tonya Martin, who died. We got her name through an Accurint of Tonya, and we looked for her and Facebooked her. I think those new techniques — or not really techniques, just another place to look for people — but it’s definitely useful.
RL: To add to that, I remember that when I couldn’t find a specific person I would kind of blast all of their friends that I could see they had, if I didn’t know they were going to see the message, if they don’t go online that often, whatever. I would ask them — I would tell them flat out, “I’m a reporter; I’m trying to contact this person; do you have a cell phone for them, can you mention me?” That kind of thing, and that worked sometimes too.
QAO: You mentioned reaching out to the sister of Tonya Martin, who was a young woman who committed suicide, and you told a little bit about her story and her life in the article. So how did you approach talking to family members and friends of a young woman who had recently died?
RL: So I had to do that call, and that was probably one of the hardest calls, at least for this story but just in general also, because I’m calling not from Tennessee again. I’m calling to pry into someone’s life: that’s one way to look at it, that I’m opening this wound of a family that’s still grieving. She had died only a week or so before I had contacted the family, and when we, Rosie and I, first found out about the death we used Accurint and found all the family’s phone numbers. We tried leaving messages saying, “I’m very sorry to call you under these circumstances, and I understand this is a difficult time.” We tried to be as sympathetic as we could, but also letting them know why we wanted to talk with them. We didn’t get calls back for a few weeks I think, then I think I just started going on Facebook and trying to contact whoever I could within the family.
RG: The way we found out about it was we had Googled everyone’s names again and found an online memorial posted by a family member on a website, like a random website announcing the funeral, and it said who had officiated the funeral and that’s how we found [Vernon Webb].
RG: We were lucky because we had an amazing advisor, a guy named Jere Hester who’s at the grad school, who was an old-time Daily News city editor and was very used to advising you on doing hard things, like going to the houses of people whose family died. And you know, the Daily News does that all the time — the door knock on the family of the person who dies. So he was the one to tell us what is helpful to say, like first of all, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” which seems really obvious, but it’s the first thing you say and people are much more receptive after you say that.
RL: Right, I do remember that. I think we tried the immediate family first, including her sisters, and they didn’t get back to us for the first two weeks, and I knew we were on deadline at this point. The Nation had already scheduled the story, and Tonya’s story is something we actually found out like a week before, two weeks before going to press. So when I finally made that call, I tried to use every guideline that Jere Hester at CUNY had given me, just saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss, and this is why I’m reaching out to you.” And it turned out that he was actually — the man I spoke to, Vernon Webb — very kind, actually did want to talk with me and tell me a lot about Tonya’s life, what she was like, so we did spend a long time on that phone call, but it took me a long time for me to essentially fuel up the courage to ask exactly what happened during her death, because I didn’t know any of the details. We knew that she had died but we didn’t know it was a suicide; it wasn’t written in the obituary, for example. So that was the hardest detail for me personally to ask about. Socially, I would never ask about these things but as a journalist I had to ask it and so that’s how that came to be.
QAO: So in some of these situations, you don’t know your sources very well or there’s not a lot of documentation around events that are taking place or stories that are being told. So how did you back up some of the stories that you were telling or fact check any of the events or ideas that were being discussed?
RG: Everything was verified and fact-checked and, in fact, there were a number of things that did not make it into the story that we couldn’t verify, you know, exactly for that reason. Because the legal stuff is easier, all the arrest stuff is easier, because there’s a paper trail, there are criminal complaints. And when you’re talking to the police departments and detectives and judges, that’s all easy, you can use that and verify a lot of things that way. And then there are some things, like when a woman says that she tied herself to her bed and tried to detox for 15 hours that, unless she has a video of it or something, I mean there’s really nothing you’re gonna do but take her word for it and print it as her word. Certainly the theme of this whole piece, I think, is let’s see what these women’s word is, let’s take their word for it for a second and see what they think of it. So there were things that people told us happened that we could find no trace of, we could not find the people, and we had to let them go in terms of telling a story. Then there were other things that you know we figured out how to triangulate with law enforcement or legal or whatever and then the middle kind of area where people are talking about their own experience, that’s where we sort of let people speak for themselves.
QAO: So then on the enforcement side of the issue, you talked a little bit to law enforcement agencies and officials about this issue in Tennessee, so did you see and difficulty or any resistance from those officials and agencies when you were trying to find things out?
RG: It’s a lot better than it is in New York I’ll tell you that. I mean, New York everyone’s been — there’s like five public information officers for every office, and a lot of times it seems like their job is to keep the public from getting information. People are very, very scared to talked to the press here, and they’ve been scared out of talking to the press if they work for the government at all, in any way, everyone just can’t talk, which is kind of crazy if you think about it. And I think in Tennessee it wasn’t quite that way you know, especially in smaller places, people felt more authority to speak and that was good.
RL: I would say there was one prosecutor who hung up on me, but other than that it was very easy. I didn’t usually have to go through a public information officer, in some cases we just called straight through to the detective who arrested the woma,n and he would say very candidly what he thought. I thought — like Rosie said — it was a lot easier reporting in some ways in Tennessee than here in New York.
RG: And we generally wanted to know what they were hoping, what the policies were that they were implementing. At the same time we were also really glad to get the message of what we were hearing on the ground to them. It was like being a little conduit from like, “Okay, well, Jamillah’s telling me that the drug court program is really hard, and it’s your idea, and you’re saying that no one can take maintenance therapy and why do you think no one can take maintenance therapy?” To be able to be that conduit was very interesting, and then to be able to take his point of view back to her, even though they’re in Tennessee and I’m in New York — because of the power dynamics that conversation doesn’t really happen.
QAO: And outside of the pregnant women or women who had had children, who are directly affected by this law, you interviewed some people who just live in Tennessee or who are drug users in Tennessee and aren’t directly affected by this law perhaps. Why did you feel it was important to talk to all of those other people?
RG: Well, because this isn’t a complete vacuum. Sometimes these laws happen, and it’s as if nothing like this has ever happened before, but for the people who live lives who are impacted by them, it’s just another part of a much longer term thing. So if you talk to someone who had a baby four years ago in Tennessee, and who was a heroin user, about her decisionmaking, I think that’s important context, and I wanted to really have the opinions of people who use drugs that are impacted and have their expertise matter and not just the expertise of the service providers and then the lived experience, individual experience of the people. I feel like that’s a kind of journalistic dichotomy that people do where some people have the knowledge and other people have the story and I wanted to get the knowledge from people who had lived it.
QAO: This story has gotten a lot of attention, and there’s been a lot of people talking about it and talking to you two about reporting the story. How do you feel about the reception of the story and how do you think you’ll be doing any follow up work?
RL: I don’t know; we have gotten a lot of attention for it especially in our journalism circles, and we spoke on the radio a little bit about it here in New York. I think this story is worth following up on. Just this week Jamillah Falls — one of the women we wrote about — went to prison — I think Rosie can speak to this a little bit more.
RG: She said she would rather go to prison than finish out this drug court program that we wrote about in the article which is really important to know. She’s going to be in prison now for four years because she had a probation violation as well. Her son — her lawyer tells me her son is likely to be — you know, her parental rights will be terminated so it’s very profound.
RL: And I think that’s another angle of it too, is that what happens after the — you know the women are arrested, then what happens, are they going to end up in jail, how many go to jail, how many go through treatment? Doing that breakdown is a lot more work for sure.
RG: And what do they think of everything — I mean I think that’s what gets lost so much, often. Here’s a mug shot, and here’s what happened, but what is actually that person who is the subject of the story actually make of it all? So I’m really curious what Jamillah is thinking right now.
RL: There’s that and there’s also what happens to their children. Children are taken away from their mothers, and they’re only a few weeks old. And the mom’s parental rights get terminated because she can’t get through an essentially impossible drug treatment program, so I think there’s definitely follow-ups to be done.
RG: There’s also the bigger sort of story — if you crunch the numbers after a year or two you’ll find, I’m sure or I would expect — I shouldn’t speculate but even if you crunch the numbers now there are many many NAS [neonatal abstinence syndrome] births, and there are only a few women prosecuted, but they’re all poor, they’re disproportionately women of color, and we know that there are many more women, white women and women with money who are giving birth in the exact same way — NAS births, the exact same crime — but they’re not being prosecuted and their kids are probably fine and they’re all probably fine. So, if you compare down the line the women who have been arrested and their fate and the women who have been driven underground and their fate, versus the women who will get a pass and their fate, in five years, I think you’ll see very very different lives. But again, no surprise there.
QAO: Do you want to add anything that you felt was important to know about the process of this story?
RL: The I-Fund was great for this — seriously — we had a lot of support from [Investigative Fund editor] Sarah Blustain throughout. But she was especially instrumental in the first few weeks, when we were starting our research and planning our trip in Tennessee and checking in with us and helping us kind of visualize, what kind of information exactly do we need to get in this short amount of time and how are we going to get it?
RG: Absolutely, she made it possible for us to do this story because she believed in the story, she helped us organize our plan so we could actually get something — because it would have been really easy to go there and get nothing. And she accepted what we got and trusted us to keep getting more and getting more, building more. I think this kind of journalism, first of all, costs a lot of money, takes a lot of time, and it requires support, editorial support, and that kind of moral support. And I think not a lot of places understand that; they’re happy to aggregate it in 15 minutes but it cost thousands of dollars to report out, and many, many, many, many hours. We’re very grateful that there’s a place that understands that that’s what it takes.
RL: And to add to that, CUNY J-School also: we had a lot of support from professors, our professors there. That said, I think this story would have been — I’m not going to say impossible but it would have been — very, very difficult to compile everything and report everything and just figure out, structurally, everything that we had to figure out alone. It took a lot of people. It definitely wasn’t just me and Rosie, it definitely took a lot of people to get this story done.
This interview has been edited and condensed.