HOUSTON - It was a heart-wrenching story: A 10-year-old boy named John, separated from his mother during "the hurricane," now lives with other foster children in an emergency shelter, and he has one Christmas wish - to go home.
"But there's no way I'll get gifts for Christmas. I don't even believe in Santa anymore," the story said.
The Brazosport Facts ran the profile on its front page Nov. 29 as part of its Fill-a-Stocking series, which features a different foster child each day from Thanksgiving through Christmas and solicits donations to help fulfill the child's holiday wish.
But the story wasn't true.
Dan Lauck, a reporter with KHOU-TV in Houston, made that discovery after calling the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to request an interview with the child. He believed if the child's story was told on television, it might lead to the boy finding his mother.
Lauck said his requests repeatedly were denied because of privacy concerns, but eventually he was told that the boy was now living with relatives. He asked again for an interview, and an agency spokesman told him the profile was "fiction."
Caseworkers with Child Protective Services in Brazoria County, just south of Houston, were responsible for writing the profiles for the newspaper's charity drive, which has been a holiday fixture in the 19,000-circulation paper since 1982.
Bill Cornwell, publisher of The Facts, said the newspaper trusted the state agency to present accurate and fair stories, and believed only minor changes - such as names and ages - were made to protect the children's identities. Given privacy issues related to foster children, Cornwell said there was only so much verification the newspaper could do.
Any donations sent to the newspaper as a result of the stories were forwarded to the Brazoria County Alliance for Children, which collects money throughout the year to help abused and neglected children.
Deborah Spoor, president of the agency, said the newspaper and caseworkers had competing interests. The caseworkers' priority, she said, was to protect the children, while the newspaper needed accurate stories, which could have placed those children in jeopardy.
Lauck said it doesn't appear the CPS caseworkers were trying to profit from the stories or had any bad intentions. He said writing guidelines weren't made clear and some caseworkers may have thought it was acceptable to write composite sketches of needy children.
"They were just trying to tell stories that would clearly tug at the heart, capture the emotions of the readers and inspire them to give more money," Lauck said. "But they did it in a way that misled the public."
Bob Steele, a former TV news director who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, said the problem could have been averted if the profiles had been done by reporters rather than caseworkers.
"The integrity of the paper is damaged, the good cause that was intended is eroded and those in need are then not served as they should be," Steele said.
CPS has apologized to the newspaper, which immediately suspended its series and returned the $1,070 collected so far this year from donors.
Cornwell said his newspaper is conducting an audit into how past donations were spent and trying to determine the validity of previously published stories.
"After this came up, I said, 'OK, if we have one false story, what else is going on in this program?'" Cornwell said. "We want to make sure this thing is really pure."
Other stories set to run in this year's series also contained exaggerations or combined details from various cases into one profile, Cornwell said.
CPS officials and Cornwell have met to discuss the problem, Cornwell said. He said some of the agency's workers did help children who arrived at the Houston Astrodome without their parents during the evacuation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
He said he didn't understand why a caseworker would embellish those stories, since foster children have real stories that are compelling enough.
CPS is conducting an internal review into how the falsified story was submitted to the newspaper, spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. No disciplinary action has been taken against any caseworker, and the investigation would determine whether any is needed, he said.
Meanwhile, residents in the coastal county of 241,000 near Galveston are frustrated with the newspaper for canceling the series, Cornwell said. Many think the newspaper abandoned the children, he said.
"We are not going to walk away from the kids' needs monetarily," Cornwell said. "The newspaper is not out to punish CPS. We are out to get to the bottom of the situation so people can trust what they read."