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.