A Boston Globe summer series was narrative journalism at its best

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since the print (and pdf) version went to press.

When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced April 5, the folks on Morrissey Boulevard had reason to be disappointed. Neither of The Boston Globe’s two finalists came away with journalism’s top prize in their categories. There’s no shame in that. With the Los Angeles Times hauling down five Pulitzers, a lot of fine newspapers walked away empty-handed this year. And the Globe’s track record in the Pulitzer hunt is by no means feeble: 17 prizes since 1966, including the coveted Public Service award last year for its coverage of the priest sexual abuse scandal. But this year the Pulitzer board, apparently unable to muster majority support for any of the three finalists, chose not to award a prize in feature writing at all, leaving the Globe and its entrant, Patricia Wen, in a kind of awards-contest limbo. That’s too bad, and not just for the egos involved. Published in the dog days of summer, Wen’s three-part series, “Barbara’s Story,” is worth reading, and taking note of, for a variety of reasons.

“Barbara’s Story” tells the tale of Barbara Paul, an impoverished 38-year-old single mother of two boys she adores, but cannot, in truth, care for. Employed sporadically, homeless occasionally, subject to bouts of depression and frightening flashbacks from a rape at knifepoint, Barbara has a tough enough time caring for herself. Having been pushed off the welfare rolls in 1998, she maintains a threadbare and chaotic, though loving, home for her two sons, who are ages 16 and 11 when the story opens–and Barbara is faced with the wrenching decision of whether to sign away her rights to them as a mother.

Barbara came to the attention of the Department of Social Services, the state’s child-protection agency, by 1994, when the boys began to show signs of neglect. As of 1997, Joe and Art (they are identified only by middle names) had become the legal responsibility of DSS, though they continued to live with Barbara. In 1999, a new social worker–one of many over the years–arrived to find the Fitchburg apartment unkempt and unsanitary. Before long, the boys were removed and placed in foster care.

In October 2000, the state began the long process that would end Barbara’s parental rights. In 2002, facing a final court battle, Barbara was led toward a compromise of sorts: giving up her legal rights as a mother in exchange for two visits a year. She would no longer be the boys’ mother, but neither would they be lost to her forever. Rather than risk all, Barbara agreed. In the final installment of the series, the boys are learning to love their new life with Anne and Jim, their adoptive parents, and Barbara, her life stabilized by a subsidized apartment and federal disability payments, meets the boys who are no longer hers in a heartwarmingly comfortable post-adoption visit.

This brief summary hardly does justice to “Barbara’s Story,” which is remarkable in a number of ways. It’s not every day, or week, that the Globe or any other newspaper prints a 12,000-word narrative, especially one with no news hook–indeed, no news at all. This kind of space and play is usually reserved for Spotlight investigations and other exposés. While eye-opening in its own way, “Barbara’s Story” does not shock. Indeed, its drama derives from its vivid, sympathetic, but clear-eyed portrait of a damaged but good-hearted woman struggling not to lose the only things in her life worth caring about, her children.

It’s also remarkable to read a story of government action that, in the end, comes to pretty much the best ending one could hope for. DSS, of all state agencies, is most often put in an inherently no-win situation. When it removes children from homes where the danger is less than clear, it’s breaking up families; when it leaves youngsters in questionable homes, it’s flirting with disaster. This is tough, inherently ambiguous work, where the mistakes are painfully obvious, but only after the fact.

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In “Barbara’s Story,” DSS doesn’t do everything right. Social workers come and go, services sometimes seem directed at the wrong problems, and, ultimately, the boys get to be nearly full-grown before they find their way to a permanent home fit to be raised in. But in the end, everything works out for the best, for Joe and Art, for Jim and Anne, even for Barbara herself, thanks, in large measure, to an overwhelmed and much maligned state agency.

In today’s knock-’em-over-the-head media culture, that wouldn’t normally be considered newsworthy. But in this case, it turned out to be a helluva story.