While big-name network shows usually grab all the headlines for winning Peabody Awards, the awards board also recognizes excellence on the local news level. This year, Denver’s KMGH-TV won its second Peabody in five years for the story of Chandler Grafner, a 7-year-old boy who died of starvation because of systemic incompetence in Denver’s Department of Human Services.
It was the TV station’s persistent investigation into Chandler’s plight that led to a statewide story and eventually uncovered 13 similar deaths nationwide.
John Ferrugia was the lead investigative reporter. “Initially, it was a story about a 7-year-old who was found starved to death in a closet. This was in Denver, but it is happening in many cities. In our initial interview with his grandmother, she told us that Denver’s Department of Human Services had been involved, and we followed up to find out what their involvement was. All the records were protected, so it became a very difficult situation to figure out,” he said.
As the probe continued, Mr. Ferrugia, working with producers Tom Burke, Arthur Kane and
photojournalist/editor Jason Foster, discovered gross incompetence in the management of Denver’s Department of Human Services.
“This kid had been coming to school without a coat in freezing weather, and the school was calling. Then he showed up with a huge bruise and he told his teachers that his father had hit him,” said Mr. Ferrugia. “The police were called and he told the police what had happened, but then the story changed to he fell in the bathtub. Essentially, Human Services dropped the ball. They didn’t believe him.”
When Chandler stopped showing up at school, Human Services claimed he was being home-schooled. However, KMGH learned after the fact that management at Human Services had been lying.
“Three weeks later, he’s dead. We found a pattern of incompetence in the Denver Department of Human Services. They didn’t follow up. That led to other deaths that we uncovered. One supervisor had signed off on three of these cases where death had occurred,” Mr. Ferrugia said.
Winning the Peabody is an affirmation for Mr. Ferrugia and his colleagues, but not a reason to stop working the story. “For us, the Peabody says that we haven’t let these kids down, that we’re on the right track in terms of what we’re doing and the focus that we have for the community,” he said.