Reporter Deborah Yetter, defender for the Children of Kentucky, is retiring

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Yetter, whose persistent reporting of abuse, neglect and child welfare has led to better protections for Kentucky’s most vulnerable residents, has retired after 38 years in the industry.

Yetter’s last day at The Courier Journal was November 11th.

“Debby has received many well-deserved honors, awards and accolades throughout her nearly four decades as a journalist, but the Courier Journal family will miss her for so much more than her reporting excellence,” said Executive Editor Mary Irby-Jones.

“She is caring and compassionate, and many young journalists on our desk have benefited from her wisdom,” Irby-Jones said. “I’ve had the privilege of working with some top-notch journalists, and Debby is among the best.”

Yetter’s longtime colleague, retired Statehouse reporter Tom Loftus, said Yetter is “a rare reporter who, to sum it up in one sentence, has focused on those in need.”

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Indeed, Yetter’s coverage of Kentucky’s social services gave a voice to society’s most marginalized, including children, the disabled, and those with mental illness:

  • Her stories of the appalling conditions in the state’s juvenile court centers led to a federal civil rights investigation and sweeping changes to the state system, including a new emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation instead of punishment and incarceration.
  • Her series, titled Preying on Seniors, uncovered horrifying cases of abuse, neglect and a poor system of state welfare, leading to several changes in state laws aimed at better protecting seniors and prosecuting their offenders.
  • Her stories about the confidentiality of Kentucky’s child protection system — and her push to get The Courier Journal to join a legal battle to force the state to release records of its actions in abuse cases — resulted in a major open record victory.

Important records of how well the state protects children in cases of abuse and neglect are now accessible. These stories also prompted the state to create an outside oversight board to review child deaths from abuse and neglect.

That panel has since critically overseen cases that likely would have escaped public notice, including the case of a 16-year-old boy with autism who sustained two fractured femurs, a near-fatal injury, in 2014 in what was reported to be secure restraint at a Jefferson County public school.

The late Courier Journal editor David Hawpe called her “a shining light in state government reporting.”

“Your work had a direct, profound impact on the lives of Kentucky residents — particularly vulnerable children suffering at the hands of incompetent and irresponsible state bureaucrats,” he said in 2017, when Yetter received the James Madison Award for Service to the First Amendment was awarded by the University of Kentucky.

More:The Louisville Child Abuse Prevention Organization honors Courier Journal’s Deborah Yetter with an award

A graduate of the University of Louisville and Northwestern University, Yetter began her journalism career in eastern Kentucky, first as an instructor at Southeast Community College and later as a freelance reporter for The Courier Journal and as editor-in-chief of the Harlan County weekly Tri-City News. During this time, she covered stories ranging from coal mine strikes to poverty and unemployment to local politics.

A Louisville native, he joined the Louisville Times in April 1984 and later joined The Courier Journal in 1987 after it merged with the Times.

During her more than three decades with Louisville newspapers, Yetter has covered transportation, county government, federal courts, health, social services and the state legislature. She also spent time as an editorial writer.

In 1994, Yetter began a series of investigative stories about the appalling conditions in the state’s juvenile detention centers. Through her reporting of a largely invisible and confidential system, she uncovered under-staffed facilities where youth were routinely locked in isolation cells, beaten by other youth and staff, and denied adequate medical care and mental health treatment.

The stories sparked a 1995 US Department of Justice civil rights investigation and led to sweeping reforms in the state system under a five-year federal Consent Decree.

In 2009, she produced a three-day series entitled “Children in Crisis,” in which she explored how years of underfunding, poor management, and over-confidence around child protection had led to a child protection crisis in Kentucky.

Jennifer Hancock, President and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States, said Yetter’s departure will be felt across the Commonwealth.

“She has a uniquely adept approach to addressing the most complex child welfare issues of our time,” Hancock said.

Yetter also spent time reporting on issues in the state system for vulnerable adults, including those with intellectual disabilities. Yetter’s reporting included extensive coverage in 2006 and 2007 of Oakwood, a troubled housing facility in rural Kentucky riddled with years of abuse and mistreatment of residents.

According to Yetter’s report, the state replaced the out-of-state management company that Oakwood ran with a non-profit agency from Kentucky that has experience serving people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities.

Yetter was part of the Courier Journal team that received a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for reporting on the Carrollton bus accident that killed 27 people after a collision with a drunk driver. In 2020, she was again part of a Pulitzer effort, this time for staffers covering the spate of criminal pardons for former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in his final days in office.

Yetter received the 2015 Louisville Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women’s “Pathway to Justice” Award for reporting on child abuse and neglect. Yetter has also won numerous other awards for her reporting on children, the elderly, and those with disabilities or mental illness.

She was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2022, a recognition her peers said was long overdue.

Yetter’s departure “leaves a tremendous void” in Kentucky journalism, said Bennie Ivory, editor-in-chief of the Courier Journal from 1997 to 2013. The depth of Yetter’s knowledge of Commonwealth social services was “unmatched,” he said.

“Political leaders knew that Debby knew more about child welfare than she did, so they couldn’t bully her,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Yetter had a special knack for reporting “people’s stories,” said Sheila Schuster, a mental health and disability attorney.

More:Louisville Courier Journal reporter inducted into Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame

Schuster worked closely with Yetter in 2017 when then-Governor Bevin vetoed a bill known as “Tim’s Law.” The law, named after a Lexington man who died after a long battle with a mental illness, was intended to end revolving doors of jails, hospitals and homelessness for the mentally ill, Yetter reported at the time.

Yetter’s human-centric reporting on the issue prompted lawmakers to override Bevin’s veto, Schuster said.

“She was always, always ready to talk to those affected,” Schuster said. “She put a face to the problem so people really understood the implications.”

Yetter’s persistence made her work “very, very important to public opinion,” said Jon Fleischaker, a First Amendment attorney representing The Courier Journal.

“She’s direct,” he said. “She gets straight to the point and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Fleischaker represented The Courier Journal in the early 2000s when the newspaper, along with the Lexington Herald-Leader, fought the Catholic Diocese of Lexington over clergymen’s cover-up of child abuse. The diocese tried – and failed – to scorn The Courier Journal for publishing Yetter’s story about the cover-up.

Fleischaker also worked closely with Yetter during former Gov. Steve Beshear’s tenure when the Cabinet of Health and Family Services sought to withhold records of serious child abuse in the state. The Courier Journal finally won its cases when a judge ordered the cabinet to pay more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees and penalties, Fleischaker said.

Yetter’s coverage of the disputed records uncovered horrific deaths of children, including those in government custody.

Brooks saw Yetter’s tenacity in this reporting firsthand when he watched her sprint down a hallway of a government building one morning to get an interview with then-Cabinet Secretary Janie Miller.

Miller eventually resigned.

More:Why Kentucky Can’t Stop Hurting — And Killing — Its Children

“Kentucky’s kids didn’t have a stronger Clarion voice than Debby Yetter,” Brooks said. “She was as insightful as she was persistent, and was often the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ identifying problems before they got on anyone’s radar.”

“The loss to Kentucky’s children is unfathomable,” he added.

Schuster agreed.

“Like so many, I’m happy for them and sad for the rest of us.”

Outside of work, Yetter is a longtime member of the YMCA, serving for several years on a membership committee reviewing Y programs and services. She has also been a member of St. James Catholic Church for more than 30 years. She sings in the choir and volunteers on community committees and projects, including the restoration of the historic church and school. She also served on the committee at St James School and volunteered at the school when her children were enrolled, including working in the dining room one day a week.

Yetter said she looks forward to visiting her three children, each of whom live out of state, and her 1-year-old grandchild. She said she was ready for a break and “not always being on time.”

“I love what I do and I think it’s important,” Yetter said. “There will never be a good time to go.”

Mandy McLaren: 502-582-4525; [email protected]; Twitter: @mandy_mclaren.