‘The Lost Bones’ explores how one resilient woman brought closure to grieving families
University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle | Tampa Bay Times photo by Edmund Fountain | Used with permission
Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery has spent six years reporting on child abuse at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla. His latest series — “The Lost Bones” — focuses on the modern-day work of forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who has spent three years trying to find and identify the remains of more than 55 boys who died in state custody.
Despite facing opposition from some local community members who would rather forget about what happened at the Dozier School, Kimmerle has persevered with an important goal in mind: to bring closure to the boy’s family members, who have spent decades searching for answers.
Montgomery wrote “The Lost Bones” as part of an Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship. He’s one of five journalists taking part in the inaugural fellowship, which provides media practitioners with a stipend to spend six months telling Restorative Narratives — stories that show how people and communities are learning to rebuild and recover in the aftermath, or in the midst of, difficult times. (Montgomery is on a slightly different timetable from the other fellows, who are on track to finish their narratives by the end of May.)
“The Lost Bones” series fits into the Restorative Narrative genre for a few different reasons:
- It captures hard truths. Montgomery’s series doesn’t ignore the difficult situation that the boys and their families endured. Instead, it delves into the difficulties. The series ultimately offers a sense of hope and possibility by focusing on Kimmerle’s goal of bringing closure to the boys’ families and easing their suffering.
- It highlights a meaningful progression. The series shows what the boys’ families have been through and how they arrived upon answers with Kimmerle’s help. Restorative Narratives show progressions — from heartbreak to hope, tragedy to possibility, suffering to recovery.
- It highlights resilience. The series shows how Kimmerle manages to stay resilient in the face of ongoing challenges and opposition. Resilience is key to the Restorative Narrative genre. Our hope is that if media practitioners tell more stories about people and communities that are exhibiting resilience, they can empower other people and communities to be resilient.
- It is a sustained inquiry. Montgomery has spent six years telling the story of the Dozier School. Restorative Narratives may not come to fruition until months or years after a tragedy or period of disruption, partly because recovery and renewal take time.
- It is strength-based. “The Lost Bones” shows how Kimmerle helped family members find hope and closure. It speaks to her own strengths as a person and professional, and illustrates how her work helped strengthen others. Instead of focusing on the most dismal aspects of a situation, Restorative Narratives get people to care and listen by highlighting what’s possible. The Solutions Journalism Network’s David Bornstein said it well after attending ivoh’s 2014 summit: “To me, what’s restorative is when journalism truly helps people understand the world in its fullness, so they can properly diagnose the ills, envision possibilities with a realistic eye, and see meaningful pathways forward.”
At the end of January, ivoh will hold a dialogue and day-long training session with our five Restorative Narrative Fellows. During the dialogue, which will take place at the University of Missouri, Montgomery will talk about his series and the response it’s gotten. As a group, we’ll look more closely at how it fits into the Restorative Narrative genre and will post a follow-up piece on ivoh.org.
MARIANNA — The darkness started to fall on the pines and the kudzu-covered fields and on the little cemetery when a thundercloud erupted in the distance, and everybody down in the graves stopped digging and looked up at the sky. “Was that thunder?” one of them asked. The last thing they needed was more rain, because more rain meant more mud and more mud would make it much more difficult to get the bones out of the ground intact and in time for the evening news.
The CNN reporter was pacing in front of the satellite truck, talking into his cell phone and stressing out the public relations people from the University of South Florida. This was the biggest story USF had ever handled. They’d fielded calls from the press about bedbugs in dorms and misbehaving football players and USF’s work on the oil spill in the Gulf. But this? Hundreds of reporters and producers had called. The story involved a cemetery at a brutal reformatory known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and mysterious deaths. The excavation of a graveyard. The bones of boys coming out of the earth.
The woman who made all this happen worked methodically below ground, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, red dirt stuck to her elbows and blue jeans. Dr. Erin Kimmerle had done this before, digging up bodies to determine age and race and identity and cause of death. To right wrongs. To return boys to families. But most of her work was in other countries, places like Kosovo and Croatia and Peru. This was her back yard. Florida, the land of sun and surf, south of the South. Marianna, an hour west of the governor’s house, the City of Southern Charm.
This had started two years before as a project to map an old cemetery with ground penetrating radar. But she had found more graves than state investigators insisted were there, and the families of the dead boys wanted them back. That had emboldened her to open up the ground for answers.
The pressure on Kimmerle, 40, was intense. The associate professor of forensic anthropology was scorned by some academics, watched by Panhandle lawmakers. County officials complained about the bad publicity. The local newspaper publisher called her work “this greed motivated waste of money.” Some locals even wanted her arrested.
In town, she noticed the sideways glances. Her colleague swore somebody was following her. They didn’t know whom they could trust.
Kimmerle knew the risks. What if she didn’t find anything? What if it was a waste of money?
They started with shovels, then trowels. The first hole they’d dug was empty, nothing but Jackson County clay. But, now, on the third day of digging, a graduate student got Kimmerle’s attention. Her eyes were wide.
“Want to come take a look?”
Kimmerle descended into the open grave.
The months to come would bring protests and press conferences, more threats and a massive search for a second cemetery. Kimmerle would come close to breaking. She’d find more bodies than anybody expected. She’d find an empty casket. She’d find a hundred more questions.
Now, though, in early September 2013, at the bottom of the grave, she brushed away the earth.
There in the dirt was a perfect set of baby teeth.