Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (2023)

This report, our first ever, is intended to show the results of our work as journalists in 2021, providing independent, evidence-based reporting to inform our democracy. We held the powerful to account, exposed injustices, shared lifesaving information, celebrated the best of our communities and partnered with you — our valued readers — to make a difference.

Our team of reporters, photojournalists, videographers and editors set out to provide news and information that mattered to you. We produced in-depth investigations that influenced state policies, kept you up to date on COVID-19 news and vaccination clinics to help you and your family stay safe, and led a reader-donation campaign that will help feed thousands of our neighbors struggling through uncertain times.

Our journalism lifted the voices of those who’ve felt powerless and added fresh perspectives to the news.

We dug through public records, pressed decision-makers for answers and interviewed and photographed people who shared stories of loss, faced homelessness, survived trauma and inspired change.

Often, too, we asked you to join us in the work, whether in voting for the best-performing student-athletes, sending us recipes, grading the Green Bay Packers, remembering 9/11, or sharing Thanksgiving gratitude.

Read the full report here.

Thanks to all those who participated in those efforts, and to our subscribers. Without you, this work wouldn’t have been possible. You have a stake in our future and the future of this community, and we want you to know we take your trust in us seriously. Please drop me a line at 920-431-8392 or if you have questions, concerns or suggestions.

We’d like to also thank Report for America for partnering with us to fund two full-time reporters covering rural Wisconsin and Indigenous communities.

Thanks also to our partners in the NEW News Lab, a local news collaboration in Northeast Wisconsin advancing in-depth local reporting made up of six news organizations: FoxValley365, The Post-Crescent, Green Bay Press-Gazette, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative. The Post-Crescent and The Green Bay Press-Gazette used the support to dig deep into critical issues such as the housing and labor shortages affecting so many of us.

In the coming year, we’re planning coverage that:

  • Helps our readers understand demographic changes in their communities

  • Keeps tabs on schools as students recover from pandemic learning losses

  • Offers expert insights that can improve your personal finances

  • Focuses attention on a crisis in child care

  • Takes a candid look at inequities that keep people from living up to their full potential

  • Covers the 2022 local, legislative and congressional elections with an emphasis on issues that matter to you

Mark Treinen, News Director

Stock the Shelves helps our neighbors struggling through uncertain times

Over the month of October, journalists across the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin wrote 44 stories about hunger, food insecurity, pandemic assistance and the people working in local communities to help their neighbors in need. Giving readers this information is central to our mission as an independent news organization providing fact-based reporting from our communities — and readers responded.

This year's donations to Stock the Shelves totaled more than $163,000. That money will provide 652,332 meals. Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin distributes food based on where the donations come from, meaning local dollars help your neighbors. We’re fortunate to have such great partners in Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin and local credit unions, who work tirelessly to help support this effort. Since 2010, more than $5 million has been raised to combat hunger through this program.

Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (1)

We’re also grateful that our readers saw our coverage of the hunger issue and gave to Stock the Shelves. We know there are many options for charitable giving, and we’re thrilled so many included this campaign among them. And remember: The need doesn’t end in October. Please consider supporting Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin with your time, talent and dollars all year long.

(Video) LIVE: Latest News Headlines and Events | ABC News Live

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Golden House pantry uses hydroponic food system to help clients, kids staying at shelter | Stock the Shelves

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Stock the Shelves: A father's tearful thanks for NEWCAP food delivery reminds of need for pantry support

READ THE SERIES HERE: Want to help send food to those in need? Stock the Shelves donation window open during October

COVID-19 reporting helps answer your big questions while supplying useful information about accessing services

In dozens of reports throughout the year, we provided information for readers they couldn’t find anywhere else. This included in-depth reports as well as quick-hit information on where to find local resources and assistance on an issue where things often changed at a moment’s notice.

We explained how the state Supreme Court’s decision to end Wisconsin’s face-covering mandate would affect mask requirements in your communities; provided an exclusive look inside an overwhelmed intensive care unit amid another surge of COVID-19 patients; investigated the cause of vaccine hesitancy in the two Wisconsin counties with the lowest rates of COVID-19 shots, as well as among Black and Latino communities; and addressed the body-mass shame that was keeping some of the earliest eligible Wisconsin residents from getting vaccinated.

We provided practical information and kept updated lists: who’s newly eligible for vaccines, where to get yourself or your kids vaccinated locally, and how and where to get your booster.

We shared the experiences of local people who suffered serious bouts with COVID, and of those who lost loved ones to the disease. Moreover, we provided facts to cut through misinformation and disinformation that downplayed the consequences of its spread and treatment. As this report was being prepared, local communities were seeing another sharp increase in cases along with the emergence of the omicron variant. This is a story that we will continue to monitor closely in 2022.

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Where to get COVID-19 vaccinations in Brown County; state urges vaccinations, boosters

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Here’s why a Green Bay hospital is one of the first in the nation to receive military help

READ ABOUT IT HERE: 'Help us save lives': Brown County groups urge Black, Latino, Native American, Hmong and immigrant communities to get COVID-19 vaccine

‘Ethan’s Law’ closes loophole in foster care law that was exposed by dogged reporting

Before reporter Doug Schneider investigated the abuse and death of 7-year-old Ethan Hauschultz, Wisconsin law contained a loophole that allowed people convicted of child abuse to serve as foster parents.

If they managed to get the court to change their record to reflect a lesser charge — as foster parent Timothy Hauschultz had — prospective caregivers could evade the red flag of child abuse.

After his initial reporting in late 2020 on Ethan’s foster placement, Schneider kept a focus on the related criminal cases in 2021 as legislators, including Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, and Rep. Paul Tittl, R-Manitowoc, took notice of the hole in the law. Schneider also tracked the lawmakers’ progress as their concerns turned into a bill, and as the bill turned into “Ethan’s Law,” signed by Gov. Tony Evers, which closes a gap that allowed kids to be placed with a convicted child abuser.

Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (3)

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Gov. Tony Evers signs 'Ethan's Law,' honoring Manitowoc boy slain after being placed with man who'd admitted child abuse

READ ABOUT IT HERE: The lonesome death of Ethan Hauschultz

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Manitowoc County foster brother sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing boy, 7, in Ethan's Law case

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Investigative reporting on clergy abuse accusations prompts wider probe by Wisconsin attorney general

An investigative report from late 2020, about the death by suicide of a man who said multiple priests sexually assaulted him as a student, led to further coverage in 2021 and helped to inspire a campaign for statewide action on clergy abuse.

The activist group known as Nate’s Mission, named for Green Bay native Nathan Lindstrom, pressured state Attorney General Josh Kaul to launch an investigation of sexual assault allegations and potential cover-ups within Wisconsin churches.

That investigation started after a series of reports from USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin about the secrecy and trauma that survivors of sexual abuse said they experienced after reporting allegations to Catholic diocese leaders. For some, it took decades to see their abusers brought to justice. For Lindstrom, the rejection he felt after he persisted with his accusations became overwhelming. He died by suicide in March 2020, after St. Norbert Abbey told him his allegations were “not credible” and withdrew monthly payments it had been making for his mental health needs.

Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (4)

As of November, there had been about 180 reports to the AG's office as part of its investigation. At least two cases have been referred to local prosecutors for potential criminal charges, both in Brown County. About 40% of the people who reported to the state’s new clergy abuse hotline had not reported to a law enforcement agency or a religious entity before.

READ ABOUT IT HERE: First came sex abuse allegations at the abbey. Then secret payments. Then a suicide.

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Flanked by victims of priests, Attorney General Josh Kaul announces probe of clergy sex abuse

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Wisconsin clergy abuse review shows power of independent inquiry

National Coming Out Day coverage tells stories about living true lives

A team of three reporters, three photojournalists and an editor shared stories from the LGBTQ community that had rarely been told publicly before — as a way to mark National Coming Out Day in October.

Our journalists spoke with seven people from a variety of backgrounds about when, why and how they first acknowledged they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

For some, the journey was a smooth transition, filled with love and support. For others, the journey continues, having lost friends and family members along the way.

They all agreed that coming out was the best way — the only way — they could live their true lives.

Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (5)

One reader wrote afterward that “realizing that coming out does not require booking a U-haul to move to a city typically thought of as a LGBTQ safe haven makes the coming out process much less isolated. … Thank you for using your time and talents to bring a little visibility to these stories and helping make things just a little bit easier for people struggling with their identities to find their own flavor of happiness.”

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Coming Out Day 2021: Wisconsin LGBTQ residents share their stories

9/11 at 20: Remembering the day that changed the world through multiple perspectives

Twenty years later, the memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the aftermath remain fresh for many of our readers.

To mark the solemn anniversary of the attack, readers from all over the state sent stories and memories from that unforgettable day. They included the memories of a Sheboygan teacher trying to calm schoolchildren and a Wisconsin Rapids teacher trying to find a way to talk to kindergartners about shocking images on TV. There were a pair of campers who emerged from the woods days afterward to experience delayed shock, and a woman who as a young, pregnant mother waited three days for her husband to make it home from his New York office.

As one reader told us, “The world changed that week forever.”

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Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (6)

The world changed in some unique ways for Wisconsin residents who are Muslim American, and we spoke with many on the 20th anniversary. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, they experienced personal assaults, harmful stereotyping and alienating rhetoric as they lived and served in their communities. Some hid their backgrounds, cut their beards, removed their head-coverings, altered their names or retreated from society.

Yet they turned those moments into education, not just for others who benefited from a better understanding of the Muslim faith and its followers, but for themselves.

"I think that as a Muslim community we definitely have become much more aware and much more politically active and politically involved," Janan Najeeb, president of Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition and founder of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance, told us. "Because we realize if we don't present our narratives, there are enough people out there that don't like us that would prefer to create the narrative that they want."

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Wisconsin's Muslim Americans address post-9/11 Islamophobia through community, civic engagement

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Wisconsin remembers: From classrooms to hospitals to farm fields, here's how 9/11 news unfolded in our state

A tragic trend hits close to home: Four members of same Wisconsin National Guard unit die by suicide

The tragic trend of active service members and veterans dying by suicide hit home when in November we published the results of an investigation into the deaths of four Wisconsin Army National Guard members from the same unit. These citizen-soldiers hailed from Appleton, Oshkosh, Nichols and Waunakee.

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin investigation chronicled how four Wisconsin Guardsmen died by suicide in a five-month span in 2020 and early 2021 after serving in Afghanistan. The investigation also detailed how Guard leaders and lawmakers have failed to keep pace with the distinct mental health burden facing the force.

The suicide rate in the National Guard is higher on average over the past five years than the rate among full-time and reserve military personnel. In 2020, 120 Guard members nationwide died from suicide, up from 90 the year before. Guard leaders will not release the numbers of suicides by state, citing privacy concerns.

Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (7)

In response to our reporting, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has asked the head of the force to release specific numbers of deaths and provide details about how the Guard can provide better care for its members.

In a December letter to Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, Baldwin cited several findings and possible reforms highlighted in our investigation last month, including the need for a one-stop shop of mental health resources tailored to the force.

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Four Wisconsin National Guardsmen went to Afghanistan together. All returned home safely. Within months, all took their own lives.

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Sen. Tammy Baldwin presses National Guard leader for answers, data about the high suicide rate in the force

Investigation uncovers child abuse allegations against state legislator

An investigation by reporters Natalie Eilbert and Chris Mueller revealed that a current member of the Wisconsin Assembly had once been accused of felony child abuse but avoided prosecution.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette uncovered allegations that in 2013 — before he was elected to the Legislature but while he was active in state and national politics — Shae Sortwell was accused of leaving multiple 4-inch bruises on his child and told police officers the Bible commanded him to strike his children as punishment, according to police reports obtained by the newspaper.

A team of officers, medical professionals and child-welfare specialists interviewed family members and examined the child before the Green Bay Police Department recommended a felony child abuse charge against Sortwell and a felony charge of failure to act to prevent bodily harm against his wife. Both charges carry a maximum penalty of six years in prison.

The Brown County District Attorney’s Office never filed charges and did not explain its decision to police until the Press-Gazette inquired about the case over eight years later. The newspaper discovered the DA’s Office had prosecuted other people for felony child abuse in similar cases around the same time it declined to charge Sortwell.

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Rep. Sortwell, R-Gibson, remains a member of the state Assembly Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which influences state laws on crimes including child abuse.

After reading the story, a longtime Wisconsin newspaper editor wrote: “I retired in 1992 and I have read very few newspaper stories since then that did a better job of nailing the door shut in an investigative article such as this one … great journalism is alive and well."

Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (8)

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Wisconsin legislator Shae Sortwell was referred for felony child abuse in 2013 before elected, but was never charged

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Wisconsin Right to Life calls allegations against Sortwell 'serious,' adds he resigned as Brown County chapter leader following allegations

Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (9)

'Unaffordable: No Place to Call Home' series tells about housing problem in region and how to solve it

Over five months, journalists from the Green Bay Press-Gazette and The Post-Crescent of Appleton spoke to hundreds of people about their experiences in the housing market in Northeast Wisconsin.

Their reporting found that Wisconsin needs to add almost 120,000 rental units for extremely low-income households, including about 2,900 more rental units for less than $650 per month in Appleton and 3,700 in Green Bay in a similar price range.

Construction for new homes and apartments took longer when the housing market collapsed in the late 2000s and has yet to recover, and it has become even more difficult because of steep increases in material and labor costs. Developers who want to build housing for low-income families are increasingly dependent on state and federal tax credits that are in short supply.

People who receive Housing Choice vouchers, also called Section 8, have a difficult time finding landlords willing to accept the federally subsidized rent assistance payments. This forces people to live in substandard homes or be homeless.

Through their reporting, the journalists found that low-income families that rely on benefits like vouchers and food and child care assistance can face a sudden and disproportionate loss of those benefits as they work to improve their household income.

Many residents told Press-Gazette reporters the series gave them a voice for the first time and shared their struggles in finding a home for their family. The Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and United Way's housing and homelessness action plan now includes a link to the series.

Cora Haltaufderheid, then-executive director of Greater Green Bay Habitat for Humanity, said the public needs to recognize the impact housing has on families in their own communities. She urged the region to continue discussions sparked by the recent coverage.

"Continue the dialogue. It’s lengthy and it’s long, but it’s going to provide results in the end," Haltaufderheid said, adding that recent reporting is "making a difference."

Here are 9 stories that made a difference in Green Bay and across Wisconsin in 2021 (10)

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READ THE SERIES HERE: Unaffordable: No Place to Call Home

READ ABOUT IT HERE: Disrupted lives, frustration and stress: Northeastern Wisconsin residents' struggle to find an affordable, suitable home.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Green Bay Press Gazette journalism shows impact of community reporting


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