HALLOWELL – Seth Freed Wessler spent several months last year flying around the country, interviewing immigrants in federal detention centers.

The work brought attention to the intersection of the immigration enforcement and child welfare systems, where thousands of children are separated from parents facing deportation.

Wessler, who grew up in Hallowell, hopes his investigative report for Colorlines.com will receive even more attention after it earned him a national journalism award, the Hillman Prize for Web Journalism.

“My hope is that winning this prize will provide a platform for more people to hear about this story,” said Wessler, son of Ellen Freed of Hallowell and Stephen Wessler of Litchfield.

Wessler, 27, got his start telling other people’s stories as a senior at Hall-Dale High School. He graduated in 2002, before students had to complete a capstone project as a diploma requirement. But he proposed his own multimedia project.

Wessler decided to explore the way people build their identities and find a place in a community. He interviewed five people, including a military veteran, an elderly woman and a young man who immigrated from East Africa as a refugee.

Wessler said the project, which included poetry, photography and song in addition to long-form writing, made him reflect on his own identity as a Mainer and what it meant to be an engaged citizen committed to social justice.

“The thing that that project did for me was for the first time make me realize the power of stories and storytelling as tools to think about larger social problems, political policy problems and so forth,” Wessler said. “There really was value in listening to, asking questions about, and uncovering, stories.”

He attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., then moved to New York to work for the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank that publishes Colorlines. Over time, Wessler began writing more for Colorlines, and he is now a staff writer for the online magazine.

In 2008, Wessler and a colleague wrote a story about a woman in California whose child was placed for adoption when she was deported. The woman had been adopted from Russia as a child, but she did not become a permanent resident.

Through surveys, interviews and Freedom of Information Act requests, Wessler and colleagues estimated conservatively that 5,100 children are in the foster care system because their parents have been detained or deported. They expect 15,000 more children to face similar situations in the next five years.

Although federal policy calls for deported or detained parents to be able to choose whether their children will join them, that has not been the case, Wessler said.