By Sandy K. Johnson

Florida quietly cut $100 million over seven years from six main mental institutions, and what happened next was a shocking reduction in staff and a rise in violence.

The state of Florida tried to cover up the impact of the budget cuts and the extent of the violence, but three journalists methodically unearthed the truth: More than 1,000 patients and staff were injured over that time and 15 of them died.

An unusual collaboration by the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune produced the project “Insane. Invisible. In danger.” Their work won numerous awards in 2016, including the National Press Foundation’s Carolyn C. Mattingly Mental Health Reporting Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Three reporters – Leonora LaPeter Anton and Anthony Cormier of The Tampa Bay Times and Michael Braga of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune – described their reporting on the story to NPF.

They originally thought the storyline was about mentally ill patients trapped in institutions without their day in court. As the reporting evolved – everything meticulously tracked in databases – they realized it was about the budget cuts and escalating violence.

Among the items they tracked: Abuse hotline calls, prescription records, worker’s compensation claims, discipline logs, budgets by department, therapy hours for education and counseling over time, monthly scorecards (which show things like recidivism, restoration times, cost per bed), total number of employees over time, wage data, overtime hours, number of mentally ill people in prison, seclusion and restraint data, inspectors general reports, local police and hospital reports.

From police, they obtained hospital surveillance videos that showed patients and staff in violent acts – confirming their reporting and providing chilling illustrations for their project.

Over 18 months, the reporters gathered thousands of records and analyzed the database to find trendlines. They agreed that organization was critical. The three reporters credited their editor, Chris Davis, for keeping the reporting and writing on track. Davis had them write “white papers” to provide context for the topics they were reporting on.

Their published stories triggered alarm in the Florida legislature, which had made the budget cuts that trickled down to the hospitals. Lawmakers appropriated $55 million to alleviate the issues and hired 160 new employees.