By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A fine story, an unanswered question

Today’s front-page Boston Globe story on the sad, dysfunctional family of Acia Johnson is as fine an example of long-form narrative journalism as you’ll see in a daily newspaper, especially in 2008.

It’s exactly the sort of storytelling that’s most endangered by cutbacks in the newspaper business, and it’s heartening that the Globe is still willing and able to commit itself to such stories. Reporters Keith O’Brien and Donovan Slack and photographer Suzanne Kreiter deserve a lot of credit.

But I come away with a question that’s not really answered by the article.

Acia Johnson is the older of two sisters who recently died in each other’s arms when a fire ripped through their South Boston home. Their mother’s girlfriend has been charged with setting the fire.

O’Brien and Slack write that Acia and Sophia Johnson’s lives could have been saved if the state Department of Social Services had intervened a long time ago, removing the girls and their brother, Ray Johnson Jr., from the chaotic environment in which they were growing up. There is ample evidence of that chaos throughout the article, and there’s no question that DSS could have and should have acted. No surprise there.

But the link between that chaos and the girls’ deaths is tenuous. Their mother, Anna Reisopoulos, had fallen in love with Nicole Chuminski, who, authorities say, turned out to be dangerously unstable. Reisopoulos was home, asleep, when Chuminski allegedly showed up, began shouting and then torched the house. According to O’Brien and Slack’s reporting, Reisopoulos and Chuminski’s relationship was volatile, but that’s not all that unusual. It was other aspects of Reisopoulos’ life that should have led to DSS’s taking her children away.

Yes, Reisopoulos was “half drunk” when she was awakened, allegedly by Chuminski’s shouting, at 3 a.m. But that doesn’t make her an unfit parent. Indeed, it strikes me that what happened that night could have taken place even if Reisopoulos had been leading an exemplary life.

The girls died on a night when their mother was not wandering the streets, was not abusing drugs and was not out shoplifting with the girls’ father. Maybe that’s the ultimate irony.

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  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for pointing us to a fine piece of journalism.I disagree with you, however, about the link between the chaos in those girls’ lives and their death. I think the piece does an excellent job of showing the =cumulative= effect of the years of dysfunction, coupled with DSS’s failure to act.Just because none of the primary characters held the match does not mean that their appalling life choices did not set the stage, if not the blaze.-dan

  2. mcough4

    Dan, I agree with most of your comments. But I am concerned that you, like the reporters, jump on the bandwagon of DSS-bashers. We don’t know enough about the specifics of the caseand DSS’ role in it to rush to judgement that DSS could or should have intervened more aggressively in that family. But I am glad you point out that on the night of the fire, Acia and Sophia’s mother was not negligent.MC

  3. O-FISH-L

    The Globe neglects to elaborate on what this story does to undermine their fragile, ultra-liberal notion that homosexuality is a trait one is born with and not a choice.Readers know that this animal, Anna Reisopoulos, was so oriented as to mother two children, yet she was also “oriented” to, to quote Dan Kennedy, “fall[en] in love with Nicole Chuminski, who, authorities say, turned out to be dangerously unstable.”So which is it, sexual preference or sexual orientation? It also would have been nice for the Globe to elaborate on whether Nicloe Chuminski’s actions do anything to bolster the long-held but-recently-abandoned-to-political-correctness psychological and sociological theory that spurned homosexuals are more likely to retaliate by way of arson. Even though instructors are no longer allowed to teach it in MA police academies, the theory seems right on in this case.

  4. jan

    Does anyone ever wonder what the DSS response would be if they EVER had adequate funding?

  5. Anonymous

    In the Globe chat with Donovan Slack, she said it should be noted that that Acia’s paternal grandmother signed the forms saying the children were living with her.

  6. Anonymous

    for all the people who think those children would have been better off in foster care, the globe has an article today (6/5) about foster care based on a study by the Boston Foundation. Acia and her siblings would have faced long odds if they were placed in foster care, particularly if they were broken up. Acie was in about as bad a family as you can imagine, but somehow she was doing better than almost all the children who come out of the foster care system. Are you comfortable saying that this was just a fluke? –Bob Gardner

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