Aramink

Engaged with the World

The Crime of Mental Illness

Arkansas’s insanity defense (Ark. Code. Ann. 5-2-312) has two prongs. A person can claim that he was (1) unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of law due to a mental disease or defect, or (2) unable to appreciate the criminality of his conduct because of his mental disease or defect. Not every mental illness will qualify for the insanity defense. In fact, most will not.

“Not guilty by reason of insanity” is a wholly separate issue from the mentally incompetent defendant who is medicated to the point that he is able to stand trial and participate in his defense in the first place. Likewise, the state is supposed to medicate insane death row inmates so they can appreciate why they are being killed by the government.

The prosecution gets to pay for the psychiatrist, and it only pays for one – generally, the same one who regularly testifies in cases where the insanity defense is raised.

While everyone has a right to counsel under the constitution, everyone does not have a right to independent expert testimony. That’s reserved for the wealthy or the defendants who have a dedicated, persuasive lawyer.

We can generally guess what a psychiatrist called regularly as a witness by the state and paid regularly by the state is most likely to report. Even the most professional and unbiased experts in such a situation will be tainted by the appearance of impropriety.  Consider the correlation: police officers who know exactly how to phrase their testimony so that the facts – whether or not the officer actually witnessed them – appear most damning. It happens this was in child abuse and neglect cases, too. Case workers are taught to phrase their testimony so that the parent appears in the worst possible light, regardless of actual facts.

If he’s wealthy or lucky, the defendant will be able to find the funds to pay for another mental evaluation – if he’s capable of cooperating with such an evaluation and capable of realizing that a second opinion would be in his best interest. Sometimes – again if the defendant is lucky – a judge will agree to allow state funds to pay for that second expert opinion. IF the judge permits a second expert, the defendant’s funds are limited. The state’s funds, on the other hand, are not. This is yet another situation where poverty means a fair trial may be out of the reach of the ordinary criminal defendant.

American law treats insanity as though it’s an either/or condition. If the defendant was insane at the time the act was committed, he is supposed to be found not guilty and sent to a mental institution. He can only get out by proving he is no longer a danger to anyone.

(Of course, when a person who is acquitted by reason of insanity gets out of the mental institution, his mental health treatment is controlled by the tender mercies of the insurance companies unless he qualifies for Medicaid.) To be acquitted, his insanity has to prevent the defendant from being able to appreciate the criminal nature of his conduct.

Since someone who is psychotic or delusional may have believed that he needed to kill or seriously injure another person, this measure of culpability falls short of what it needs to be. The notion of “personal responsibility’ gets triggered. If the defendant knew he was killing or injuring someone, no matter how his delusion played into his decision to act, he is considered capable of forming “culpable intent.”

In Clark v. Arizona (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue to the great detriment of the mentally ill. The bottom line was that the paranoid schizophrenic who shot a police officer was held criminally responsible, and was not allowed to submit evidence of his overall mental state. This defendant in that case believed that aliens had taken over his town. He shot an alien that turned out to be a police officer, but since he knew shooting a REAL police officer was wrong, he got a 70 year prison sentence instead of mental health treatment.

And we call that justice.

The United States has a habit of incarcerating the mentally ill. The reasons for this are complex, but boil down to a lack of understanding in the population at large combined with a serious lack of mental health care for many people who need it.

My family is typical. I have mental illness in my family, and despite the love other family members have for the person afflicted, they don’t educate themselves about depression, bipolar, delusions, or psychosis. They consider the mentally ill person’s actions to be a matter of personal responsibility.

This attitude is not unique to my family. It is the norm, not the exception. We are all responsible for our own actions, right? And if we can appreciate the fact that X conduct is criminal, but we engage in that conduct (no matter how our psychosis or delusions may have convinced us that such conduct was necessary), then we should be punished for it – right?

Someone who is actively experiencing psychosis is not responding to the stimuli the rest of the world responds to. Sure, there’s the normal stimuli, but because of the psychosis the person’s judgment is severely impaired, and he may well be experiencing more stimulation than a person who is not psychotic. Now let’s add delusional thinking to the mix. Not only is he responding psychotically to his environment, he can’t interpret what he sees appropriately.

Delusions can be mild and relatively harmless, or they can be severe and pervasive to the point that they control everything the mentally ill person says or does, including his personal interactions and his crisis response. (Delusion and psychosis are not the only severely crippling mental conditions.)

It’s not always apparent that someone is psychotic or delusional. The person may be able to carry on a reasonably coherent conversation, dress himself, drive a car, go out in public. One wrong response to his environment may be laughed off as “quirky” or “nutty,” people witnessing it may roll their eyes or cross the street to get away from him. But a series of wrong responses to his surroundings may result in disaster for him and for everyone around him. The time between that first wrong response and that series of wrong responses may be a disastrously short crescendo.

Now, couple the “personal responsibility” attitude of the ignorant general public with someone who appears to be rational but is actually psychotic and/or delusional. “He was just fine a moment ago” is something we hear a lot, but that is not true in the case of someone suffering from severe mental illness. He may have appeared to be just fine, but in fact his brain wasn’t working any better a moment ago than it was when he made that mistake in responding to something that happened.

When the mistake that results in harm to someone else, American society’s response is to take revenge. That’s what our prison system is – a system of revenge, not of correction or rehabilitation. There is no more mental health treatment in prison than there is in the public at large – in fact, there may be less. A series of lawsuits 40 years ago closed most of the mental institutions in this country, and insurance companies won’t pay for long-term in-patient care for the most part. Historically, very few insurance policies have paid for treatment of mental illnesses. Unless they qualify for Medicaid, patients’ families often must pay out of pocket or their loved ones go untreated.

Consider this: prior to the Affordable Care Act, most health insurance policies did not cover mental health at all. Anyone with one of those policies not covering mental health treatment had to pay out of pocket or get assistance from Medicaid if they had a mental illness, even if it was situational depression.

What treatment insurance companies were willing to pay for was laughably inadequate. Even now, insurance companies may approve a series of ten visits to a therapist, but a prescription and ten visits to a mental health counselor aren’t going to “cure” mental illness.

That’s because mental illness is not an infection – it’s a chronic condition. Even under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are still in the driver’s seat when it comes to mental health treatment. That means a for-profit corporation is making the decision of whether or not to pay these bills. Which leads me to my next rant in favor of a single-payer system…

Drug Testing: the Wrong Results

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

When I was a law student, I took a class on environmental law. One of the subjects I was interested in was contamination by secondary exposure. Direct exposure is obvious and often quantifiable. Indirect or secondary exposure – in the form of things like acid rain or second-hand smoke – was more complex and harder to quantify and prove. I was also fascinated by the possibility of false positive and false negative results from the testing methods available at the time. These tests were being used to fight coal-fired power plants and to hold cigarette manufacturers liable for the lung cancer of non-smokers. They were also being used to ferret out pot smokers and recreational users of certain prescription medications.

It was 1988. The Reagans were in the White House. Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign was wildly popular among people who had no clue about how teenagers test boundaries. That year saw a wave of employers demanding that their employees take drug tests either before beginning employment, after an accident, or randomly. Aside from the 4th Amendment issues (which only applied to the government employers), dissenters raised objections to false positive test results that could damage not only someone’s career but their reputations and future employability. Being a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I was at least passingly familiar with the concept of the “contact high.” Could a person’s off-duty social associations cause him to lose his job? I decided to investigate the matter.

I researched the science, not just the law. I learned that something as ordinary as a poppy seed bagel or over-the-counter antihistamines could skew test results. There was no way to differentiate between someone who had ingested the substance illicitly or simply gone to a concert and been assigned a seat near people who were smoking weed. The science could test for the presence of the chemicals, but could not say how they had gotten into the person’s body or whether the person was feeling the effects of the substance at the time of testing.

Five years later I had a very active family law practice. I handled quite a few employment law cases, too. Drug testing came up over and over again. Knowing what I did, I discouraged clients from attacking each other for drug use unless it was seriously interfering with parenting responsibilities – and not just because of the false positives and false negatives. Usually if one parent partakes, the other parent will have been exposed, if they didn’t themselves indulge. The employment cases were the worst, though.

All it took was an accident that was someone else’s fault to trigger a drug test under most employers’ policies. I remember a truck driver who hired me who said yes, for the first time in 20 years he had smoked a joint at his college reunion a few days before the accident. He wasn’t high when it happened, but lost a $70,000/year job when a woman driving another vehicle ran a stop sign. He swerved to miss her and ended up in a ditch. He was fired because of the drug test, not because of the accident.

I remember the 60+ year old woman who was told she had failed a pre-employment drug test. This woman had been out of work for more than a year because the plant where she had worked closed. She had had to give up her home of 40 years and move in with her daughter. She was looking forward to independence again. Our investigation revealed that the test samples had probably been switched accidently, either at the lab or by whoever had collected the samples. A long-haired hippie-type person had the job she had applied for, and in a fit of profiling she just knew he was actually the one with the drugs in his system. Her preacher, though, in whom she had confided the devastating test results, had condemned her and was counseling her to get help for her non-existent addiction. She was humiliated and literally sick over it.

By 2000, there were lots of products on the market specifically marketed to people who needed to beat a drug test. Substance abuse was an issue in at least half of the custody cases I tried, and maybe more. Every single client – and every single opposing party – knew about these products. They weren’t 100% reliable, but I didn’t have any clients who submitted to a drug test without using the products if there was time for them to do so. Those who I knew used drugs were made aware that in-court testing was a possibility. While I couldn’t tell them to destroy the evidence, I could tell them to be ready to be tested. With a few exceptions, they were all smart enough to take steps.

drug testing - hair follicle collectionThen there was the grandmother who was suing for custody of her badly neglected grandchildren. She didn’t use drugs. She was asking for custody because her daughter and son in law did, and because of their drug use they didn’t take care of their children adequately. She had asked for drug testing knowing that she would pass easily and that the parents would fail any drug test they were ordered to take. The judge ordered everyone to be tested. The grandmother had gone to a James Taylor concert at Alltell Arena and breathed in that second-hand marijuana smoke. Her grandchildren ended up in foster care.

Then came hair follicle testing. Follicle testing was more foolproof and harder to beat, the testing centers and manufacturers claimed. It wasn’t long before the shampoos and rinses were marketed in the same places as those flushing solutions. “You cannot beat a hair test,” one site still boasts. It’s wrong. Even if the test shows positive, it doesn’t explain how the substance got there.

It made me think of the rumor I had heard back in the 1980’s when cocaine use was rampant in the United States. It was said that traces of cocaine could be found on nearly every American $100 in circulation. Partiers would roll the bill into a straw and snort the powder through it. This level of contamination is still the case, and the bills don’t even have to be used directly with the cocaine. They can get contaminated inside currency-counting machines at the bank. Imagine handling one of those bank-contaminated bills that you just withdrew to pay your lawyer, them smoothing a stray strand of hair. Then imagine that you are sent directly for a drug test, and despite the fact that you have never in your life even seen cocaine, much less used it, your drug test comes back positive for the drug. It doesn’t have to be in your system to count. It just has to be in your hair. And once again, you are placed in the position of having to explain how it got there, and proving the negative of the drug use that you are now presumed to engage in.

With the announcement from the American Chemical Society last week that steps taken to remove secondary contamination from hair being drug tested actually washes cocaine into the hair shaft, the most reliable of these unreliable tests just became even less reliable.

Science gives us a lot, but it is not a panacea and never will be. It answers some questions, but answering those tends to lead to more that need to be asked. Whether in the courtroom or just in everyday life, we need to remember to ask those questions that logically come next. Science can then begin investigating them and working to find the answers.

Drug testing is too fallible to be reliable. A positive drug test tells us virtually nothing. It doesn’t prove frequent use or addiction. It doesn’t prove use at all – and it never has.

Worthy of Plants and Society

I confess that yesterday did not go as expected.

I got a text about 1:30 yesterday afternoon from my friend Sarah.  Sarah and I serve on a couple of nonprofit boards together. We get stuff done. She said she needed to ask me something in person. Since she never, ever does that, my heart just about pounded out of my chest.

My mind was racing. Had I said something inappropriate to someone? Had I screwed something up? Was I about to get bad news? Holy shit, what was it? I wanted to vomit.  My heart was beating in my throat. I couldn’t think of anyone I might have offended recently. I couldn’t think of any projects that I’d flaked out on. I needed a Xanax. My eyelid was twitching.

Not Worthy

My Inferiority Complex

Sarah rang my doorbell about 20 minutes later. She wasn’t alone. I could have sworn that I heard my sister’s voice before I opened the door. That was just craptastic. The last thing I wanted was for my sister to be here if Sarah had something awful to talk with me about. I mean, Mom has proof that my younger sister’s smarter than I am = we had IQ testing done when we went to boarding school 40 years ago, so it must be true – and that fact just feeds megadoses of Little Shop of Horrors-level superfood to my inferiority complex. I really didn’t want to be humiliated in front of her….stop it, Anne. Jesus!…I opened the door.

Sarah was there. Susan was there. And so was my mom. Fuck. Sarah was holding a big flower arrangement. What was THAT all about? I wanted to get rid of Mom and Susan so Sarah could talk to me about whatever it was she had texted me about. But before I could even say “come in,” all three of them shouted, in unison, “CONGRATULATIONS!”

Garden Club flowersSarah handed me the flower arrangement. “You’ve just been elected to the Little Rock Garden Club,” she said.

 

Holy mother of meatballs and spaghetti sauce.

 

This garden club is pretty hard to get into. Like, you can’t get into it if you ask. You can’t buy your way in. There are only 70 active members, all of them female. My great-grandmother was in that club, as was my grandmother. My mom and sister are both in the club.

I don’t have a lot of friends in common with them. See, I’ve spent most of my adult life in offices and courtrooms and working long hours. I didn’t have time for book clubs, golf or tennis, coffee klatches, lunching with ladies, or dinners with friends. Even now that I’m not working anymore, I spend long hours in front of my computer and I rarely go out. When I do, it’s usually with my heathen friends, who tend to be focused on other things. I mean, I just don’t run in the same circles as these ladies. I never expected to be invited to join their club.

To get into the Little Rock Garden Club, someone unrelated to you who knows you well has to nominate you without your knowledge, then someone ELSE has to second the nomination, then a secret committee gets a chance to blackball you. And then the whole board gets a shot at saying no.

It seems that the board said yes. It seems that I did not get blackballed in committee. Apparently Sarah nominated me and another friend seconded the nomination.

I have officially arrived in society. Me. The activist. The outspoken freethinker. The agitator. The socialist. The foul-mouthed, overweight, loud, obnoxious, ultra-liberal, Charlie Brown-hating, rabble-rousing…me. I suddenly had tears in my eyes. Dear sweet baby Cthulhu, where did this gift come from?!

I know nobody gives a rat’s ass, and I know that I shouldn’t give one either, but I have felt my whole adult life that I am unworthy of being around “nice” people like the members of this club. For the last two days, my phone has been ringing with congratulations from the people I know in the club. I had no idea I knew so many of them! Maybe I do belong there after all. Maybe this will help heal my imposter syndrome, just a little.

Today, I am suddenly worthy.

I intend to enjoy the hell out of this.

Voting Right

In honor of today’s primaries, here’s a an old argument about voting rights. It hasn’t yet died.

Even though Arkansas’s Supreme Court struck down the voter ID law on the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, many other states still have burdensome voter ID laws. These laws effectively prevent legally eligible people from voting. There’s another problem, as well: too many young people think their votes don’t matter. (Spoiler: they DO!)

President Jimmy Carter, that stalwart champion of international democracy, supports voter ID requirements, at least to an extent. He has cautioned that voter IDs must be free and people living in remote locations must have some way of getting them. Proponents of Voter ID laws heard the first part of Carter’s statement, but not the last.

Republicans seem to promote these laws, while Democrats oppose them. Why? Because these laws target the young, minority, and elderly voters. These voters are the least likely to have an official government ID that is accepted at the polls.

Why are all those silly liberals so upset about this? The Founding Fathers didn’t let poor people or minorities vote either. They even had the good sense not to let women vote!

According to the Brennan Center, which conducted a notable investigation into the issue, as many as 11 percent of the voting population does not have one of these state-issued IDs. That’s a lot.

Seriously, many Republicans touted these laws as a way to ensure voter fraud doesn’t happen. The only type of voter fraud these laws address, though, is in-person voter impersonation. The ID laws are an undue burden intended to address a problem that simply doesn’t exist.

voter fraud stats

Source: voterfraudfacts.com. Check out the site for more info about the frequency and types of voter fraud in the United States.

 

To prevent 13 fraudulent votes from being cast, we should prevent 65 million votes from being cast. That certainly ensures a good representative democracy, now doesn’t it?

Republicans knew this. They still promoted passage of these laws, claiming that floods of illegal aliens inundated the polls and entire cemeteries emptied as their zombie residents tried to vote progressive politicians into office. A zombie without an ID could be turned away only if this law was in place.

Haha! Gotcha, Democrats! If your zombie base can’t vote, you don’t get elected! Those cocky Republicans just couldn’t resist tweaking the noses of their Democratic counterparts once the laws were passed. They brazenly admitted on multiple occasions that these laws were intended to prevent Democrats from being elected-not by keeping down the hoards of immigrants and stopping the zombie apocalypse, but by preventing the poor, young, old, and minorities from voting.

In one hotly-contested 2014 election in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, the Democrat lost to the Republican by less than 2500 votes. There were 386,434 registered voters in the 23rd District, and only 115,429 actually voted. A research team from the University of Houston and Rice University conducted a poll of a representative sample of the 271,005 registered voters who did not vote in the midterm election. They found that 12% of those polled believed they did not have the type of ID required to cast a ballot. Upon further questioning, the survey established that only 2.7% of those polled actually lacked proper identification. Still, that accounted for more than enough votes to have changed the outcome of the election.

Voter fraud is anything that tampers with a fair voting process. Inciting fear of non-existent fraud to pass laws that effectively disenfranchise a tenth of the population ought itself to count as voter fraud on a massive scale. It sure worked in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District in 2014.

Arkansas Republicans were not above inciting this kind of baseless fear. In 2012, when these laws were being promoted all over the country, our Republican Secretary of State’s spokesperson publicly claimed that there was rampant voter fraud being committed in all 75 Arkansas counties, mainly by Democratic county clerks who let illegal immigrants register to vote. According to Alex Reed, who used to handle press relations for Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin, it was absolutely essential to get rid of all county clerks who ran for office on the Democratic ticket because of this.

They might even illegally register on their illegal voter registration forms in Spanish that the Secretary of State’s office resented supplying. (All illegal aliens are Hispanic, and all Hispanics are illegal aliens. That’s a Venn Diagram with only one circle. Really.)

Almost the moment he was elected, Martin made it clear that here in ‘Murica English ought to be the official language. As if the Arkansas Secretary of State has any power over such things. (Source)

In August 2012 Reed spoke to the Union County Republican Party while on the state’s clock. He was there because he worked for the Secretary of State, who is the state’s chief election officer. In response to a question from the audience about how illegal immigrants get on voter registration rolls to begin with, Reed said:

Under federal law, we are required to print Hispanic voter registration applications and send those out. Then they send them back to us. The Secretary of State, they’re not the main registrar of voters. It’s the county clerks. That’s why I preach around to the county officials that it’s so important to have a Republican county clerk in every county. Because that’s the main person there and that’s who we work with the most. Either through error, or, they register and have the wrong address and it’s, ‘Oh well, they’re registered voters.’ … I don’t know what to say about it, other than it’s kind of a disgrace.

“It’s kind of a disgrace,” he said.

We suspect we know where the disgrace lies, and it isn’t with phantom illegal alien voters or county clerks.

Understandably, the county clerks in Arkansas were somewhat bemused by these irresponsible remarks. The Association of Arkansas Counties checked into Reed’s allegations and released a statement. The Association found no evidence in any of the 75 counties that Reed’s claim was accurate. Stung by the accusation of rampant misfeasance, Crystal Gaddy, the Republican secretary of the Association and a county clerk herself, rebuked Reed:

“I’m a proud Republican, but what’s important to me is to serve the people of Arkansas and my county regardless of political views. I am disappointed by the comments and the ensuing false perception of county clerks. I think it is vital to represent your office in a nonpartisan manner.”

Association president Rhonda Cole, a county clerk of the Democratic persuasion, agreed. “We’re here to serve the taxpayers regardless of political affiliations…. To describe county clerks or their actions as ‘disgraceful’ is unjust, unwarranted, and uninformed.”

If only all elected officials remembered that they represent all taxpayers, and not just those who share their party affiliation! Why, there might be less nasty rhetoric among politicians. We might even get some governing accomplished.

Might anyone in Washington be listening? No? I thought as much. Certainly local partisan hacks like Jason Rapert aren’t. If a constituent doesn’t support him 100%, that constituent gets blocked from Rapert’s social media, and maybe even gets threatened.

This man has a future in politics. (Source)

 

What the flap with these voter ID laws around the country underscores is not that there’s fraud-there’s precious little of that-but that partisan politics have sunk to a new low.

Then again, maybe it’s the same old low that Jim Crow enjoyed.

A voter denied his voting rights and an eligible voter whose ballot isn’t counted have both been disenfranchised. Disenfranchise enough people and the outcome of an election changes.

I keep hearing that Millennials feel their votes won’t count, so they don’t bother going to the polls. Guys guys guys guys guys! If your vote didn’t count, the people you’d vote against wouldn’t be so dead set on preventing your peers from voting. Your vote counts, and if you vote in large enough numbers, your votes rule.

 

Americans have long made a big deal of sending high-profile politicians to other countries to observe voting as fledgling democracies get off the ground. President Carter has gone on these poll-watching romps regularly. Why do we make a big deal out of observing the democratic process in new democracies? Because the validity of the election, and therefore the validity and authority of the elected government, depend upon those elections being conducted openly and honestly.

The validity of the election depends on the validity of the voting process.

Supporters of the voter ID laws claim that illegal voters will swarm the polls and elect the crazy “liberals” if swift, certain measures are not immediately taken.

Proponents of Democracy counter that the more people who vote, the better the people’s chance of being represented by someone they can tolerate.

VOTE. It matters.

Why I Don’t Want My Country Back

I keep hearing people say, “I want my country back.” I don’t understand why they want to regress rather than progress.

We have within our voting booths, email accounts, and voices the ability to make this country truly great. We should use them to make great things happen.

But, to go back?

I would not want to take my country back to a time when a state religion was mandated. The autodidacts of the Enlightenment gave us a gift when, first in the Virginia Declaration and then in the First Amendment, they mandated that states have to stay out of the religion business. By necessity this meant that religion also has to stay out of state business. The last “established church” (in Connecticut) was done away with in 1813 .

conn church

Congregationalist Church in Enfield, Conn. Remember Jonathan Edwards and his bombastic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“?

There are political leaders today who claim they want to take the country back to a time when religion invaded every nook and cranny of political life. They’re asking for witch trials, criminal prosecutions for wearing lace, fines for not going to church, taxes that support one church but not anther.

Whose religion will the state support in that scenario? And whose interpretation of that religion? Will we end up in a bloody civil war over predestination and evangelism? Will atheists be burned at the stake? We have a lot of work to do in this area so that the American public understands what the founding fathers did: a secular state is the only one that can possibly serve all of its citizens. I sure wouldn’t go back to a time when states were able to mandate religion, before the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1864 that finally required all of the states to abide by the Bill of Rights. I don’t want that country back.

Other important Amendments to the Constitution were also passed in those heady days immediately following the Civil War, like the one that abolished slavery and the other one that extended the right to vote to every citizen regardless of race. I wouldn’t want to take my country back to a time when an entire demographic was enslaved and marginalized, disenfranchised and dispossessed of even basic human dignity.

30VOTING-tmagArticle

Credit: Bob Daugherty/Associated Press, 1964

We’ve already lost some of the protections minorities had against the privileged majority with the loss of the Voting Rights Act. The ballot box is still under siege from people who would make it harder for the poor, the young, and the elderly to vote. We have to get more people to the polls on every election day, and we have to pass laws reforming campaign finance so that elections are actually decided on the merits of the candidate’s platform and not on the size of their sponsor’s bank accounts. Who wants to live in a country where elections go to the highest bidder? Not me.

As a woman, I wouldn’t want to take my country back to an era when I would not have  had a voice in politics. That means I wouldn’t go back to a time before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919.

suffragettes

Suffrage parade, New York City, May 6, 1912

I wouldn’t ever want to go back to a time when a woman’s “place” was barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Shackling women to their homes and children, shaming them for working and for success in other endeavors, removing from them their rights to own property or even have guardianship of their own children does an extreme disservice to half the population. That means I wouldn’t take my country back to the time before World War II, when so many women joined the iconic Rosie the Riveter in the workforce.

apron and satan

Discouraging girls from achieving their dream occupation shortchanges not just them, but our entire society. We can all benefit from the power of a brain enthusiastically focused on doing something worthwhile. If we tell boys they can be firemen or doctors  but tell girls they’ll be someone’s wife, we effectively tell our daughters that they will identify themselves by someone else’s name and someone else’s achievements. We send our girls the message that they aren’t good enough tall by themselves.  If that’s what we would return to, I don’t want that country back.

MRS degree

We hear people say they want to return to the values of the 1950’s, when June Cleaver vacuumed her comfortable home in heels and pearls, when Wally and the Beav could roam the neighborhood without supervision, where Ward wore a suit and held the same white collar job for years without stress. I have news for those people: The Cleavers were fiction. They didn’t exist except on television. Neither did that perfectly well-adjusted, large, blended Brady family in the 1970’s. When we say we want our country back, we say we long for only the good parts of a fictional, idealized era where no bad happened. It doesn’t exist and it never did.

Now is better, but it still isn’t good enough. There aren’t enough women yet in positions of power.  Women are capable business and community leaders. There still aren’t enough female CEOs of major corporations, there aren’t enough women in politics, there aren’t enough women of high rank in the military, there aren’t enough women in STEM fields, and women still don’t have the earning power of men.

We made progress in this country when becoming pregnant didn’t automatically trigger wedding bells at the business end of the proverbial shotgun.  We made progress when not just women but men were given the option of leaving bad marriages without suffering social opprobrium. We still need to improve our laws so that single parents have more support from society, so that they can earn a living wage and still have time to spend with their children. Child care needs to be more affordable and widely available so that single parents as well as married women who want financial independence aren’t prevented from reaching for it because they can’t afford to. Truly, as a society, we can’t afford for them not to.

I wouldn’t go back to a time when Jim Crow was not only the unwritten law of the land, but enshrined in statutes. This means I wouldn’t go back to a time before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, or even before Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

Let’s not take our country back to a time when a family was prevented from moving next door to us simply because of the color of their skin, or when our a playmates were prevented from going to the same school as we did – again, because of the color of their skin. This means I wouldn’t want take the country back to a time before 1968 when the Fair Housing Act became law. My hometown’s schools were integrated in 1968 – the year I started first grade – and I’m glad it didn’t take still longer.

No, I would not want to take this country back to a time when people I knew and enjoyed as friends were treated like second-class citizens, not considered good enough to drink from the same water fountain as I could or to use the same public restroom as I did. We got rid of those statutes and are still fighting an uphill battle for racial equality and equal opportunity. We still have to deal with privilege and marginalization. It’s better, but it still isn’t good.

We haven’t made enough progress in this department: we are incarcerating practically the entire demographic of black males, forever foreclosing their capacity to contribute to society or even to their families in any meaningful way. Young black men get profiled and executed in the streets. The sentences imposed for minor crimes are not only excessive,m they are applied disproportionately along racial lines. Our prisons are focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation and successful reentry to society. They days of lynchings aren’t really over – they just look different. We have a lot more work to do.

15.0212.lynching

Image from a 1920 lynching in Texas, via Wikimedia Commons

Our society made progress in my lifetime when women were finally granted the right to defend our bodies against unwanted intruders, be they marital rapists or unwanted pregnancies. We haven’t made nearly enough progress in this area, even though we thought we had won it 40 years ago; a woman’s right to decide how and when her body will be used is under a concerted and coordinated attack from those who would reduce women to incubators.  That means I don’t want to take the country back to a pre-1973 world, where Roe v. Wade didn’t protect my body from involuntary servitude to an organism that might kill me. I was eleven years old when that case was decided. No, I wouldn’t go back, even though summers seemed to last forever back then.

I would never, ever want to go back to a time where education of the young was the province of churches, or that religion was allowed in the classroom. We made excellent progress in this regard – again, within my lifetime – and it is under constant threat from teachers who tell children they aren’t Christian enough (this is a state mandating religion again) or who deny evolution and other proven scientific theories (because their preachers tell them to).

In fact, we as a society don’t do enough to ensure that our population is educated. There is a significant segment of the American population that is anti-intellectual and proud of it. (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin.) These people not only stymie the efforts of good brains, they threaten our nation’s ability to compete in the world’s markets, our health, and our standard of living. We have a lot more work to do in this area. Until every person in the country has access to affordable higher education, we undermine our growth both intellectually and economically.

And this brings me to pseudoscience. We may not have stereotypical snake oil salesmen on every street corner, but we do have quacks on television and Playboy Playmates (TM), all of whom have large soapboxes from which to sell modern-day snake oil in the form of fad diets, homeopathy, and “nutritional” supplements, and who undermine and misrepresent scientific progress.

Polio has become almost nonexistent in my lifetime. Diphtheria has virtually disappeared during my parents’ lifetimes. Smallpox was eradicated in my lifetime.  I would never want to take my country back to a time before antibiotics, vaccines, and modern surgical techniques. That means I don’t want last year’s country back.

But we need to do more to improve health and welfare. We can’t do it if our teachers won’t teach the theory of evolution and idiots without scientific training claim vaccines cause autism. We also can’t do it if every poorly-tested drug is advertised to the uneducated masses. We need to make more progress in this area.

I’ve now brought us into the present. I definitely don’t want to go back to any of what I’ve described.

Moving forward is the only option I see.

country back

You can get this on a t-shirt. Click the image to order.

Vote for the best solution

A number of my friends have said they will not vote for the Democrat if their preferred candidate isn’t the nominee for president.

Vote for Bernie or Hillary

copyrighted image: Nigel Parry for CNN

I think that’s short-sighted. There is an awful lot at stake in the 2016 election, not the least of which is the Supreme Court.

Sometimes our vote can’t be for the change we really want to see. Sometimes our vote has to be for the person who we think will do the least damage to the world, who will do the least to wreck the world as we want it to be.

No, it’s not a perfect solution. But because we have a two-party system, it’s the best option we have.

I’ve held my nose in the voting booth a lot over the years, mostly because the lesser of two evils really was significantly less evil. I’ll be doing it in one of the judicial races for the Arkansas Supreme Court. I don’t like either candidate, but one is likely to do less harm than the other, so he will get my vote.

I despair for our country if any of the Republican candidates win the presidency. I have read and heard nothing to indicate that any of them want to make the country a better place for all citizens. I am smothered by their bully attitudes, their regressive policies, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism. I see them pander to fears whipped up by Fox News. I see a theocracy in the making.

Neither Hillary nor Bernie is perfect. I have an opinion as to which would be better for the country, but if he doesn’t win the nomination I will vote for her. She’s the most moderate of all the Republicans running and the one who is likely to do the least amount of damage. She calls herself a Democrat. If it comes down to it, then she will have my vote, because I won’t be responsible for allowing one of those bombastic fools on the Republican side get elected. The blowhards, the bigots, the theocrats, the loose cannons – I cannot help them into office by abdicating my vote for their Democratic opponent. And, yes, if I end up voting for Hillary it will twist my guts knowing that yet another corporate sycophant is being elected. But that’s what happens when we choose who is the least of the evils – they’re all evil. We have to determine where the harm is likely to be done, and vote accordingly.

If the Republicans get into office, we can say goodbye to all the progress made in the last 45 years on women’s rights. We can expect that the Supreme Court will be stacked with intellectually dishonest conservatives like Thomas and Scalia. We can expect that the line between church and state will be blurred even further. We can expect people to lose insurance coverage, we can expect families to be ripped apart as half of their members are deported, and we can expect that children will go hungry.

I just can’t live with myself if I help that happen.

I like the way Allen Clifton put it in his post on Forward Progressives:

If you don’t plan to “vote blue, no matter who” this November because your candidate didn’t win and you didn’t get your way, before you cast your “symbolic vote,” I would encourage you to:

    • Find a Mexican family (or any immigrant family for that matter) that has lived here for years and has been praying for immigration reform to get passed so they can become American citizens. Tell them that it doesn’t really bother you that they’ll likely be deported if a Republican becomes president.
    • Find someone who’s living in poverty, who obtained health care thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Tell them you don’t care that a Republican president will take their health care away from them.
    • Find a Muslim and tell them you’re okay with a Republican president spending the next four to eight years vilifying their religion, potentially setting up registries where they would be tracked like criminals.
    • Tell every woman you meet that you’re okay with a Republican president potentially appointing 3-4 Supreme Court Justices who will almost certainly deem abortions illegal, thus taking away her right to have control over her own body and putting millions of women’s lives at risk as they seek out desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies.
    • Find a homosexual couple and let them know that you’re not concerned with a Republican president potentially appointing 3-4 Supreme Court Justices that will almost certainly deem bans on same-sex marriage legal and strip away gay rights any chance they get.
    • Find non-Christians and atheists and let them know that it doesn’t bother you that a Republican president will undoubtedly try to force Christianity on Americans, thus violating their First Amendment rights. Rights that will also be under attack if that same president stacks the Supreme Court with 3-4 ultra conservative Justices.
    • Find someone with a pre-existing condition. Tell them that you don’t have a problem going back to the “old system” of health care where individuals born with pre-existing conditions could be denied coverage and discriminated against by the health insurance industry, because a Republican president will damn sure repeal the Affordable Care Act.
    • Find climate scientists and everyone you can who cares about combating climate change. Tell them that it doesn’t really bother you that a Republican president would undo all the progress we’ve made to try to save our planet.

Please do all of that before you vote. Because when you don’t support either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, everything I just listed is exactly what you’re saying.

To those who have said they’ll vote for a third party candidate or decline to vote at all, please reconsider. Your vote, and the votes of people who feel the same way you do, really matter. It’s important.

Evolution Designs a Better Mouse Trap

A pitcher plant that devours rodents! What’ll them crazy evolution folks think of next?

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. A carnivorous plant in a swamp in Australia eats rats. Rat-creatures are not indigenous to Australia, so finding something that will eat them is a very good thing for Australia, albeit a very bad thing for rats set on world domination.

Nepenthes tenax

2.6 inches across and 6 inches long. I can think of something else that shares those approximate dimensions, but I wouldn’t recommend placing it close to toothy rodents.

 

Cape York is the northeastern-most tip of Australia, a short boat ride from Papua New Guinea where there are many carnivorous plants. Nepenthes tenax is the third variety of Nepenthes, or pitcher plant, to be found in north Queensland. It and N. rowanae are both endemic to Australia, very rare, and found nowhere else. When sea levels were lower, Australia and Papua New Guinea were connected by a land bridge.

cape york

Most carnivorous plants consume insects. Even the giant cobra lilies and arums, which include the largest flowers in the world, attract only bugs and not larger animals such as reptiles or mammals. However, there are a number of pitcher plants in the region that includes Sumatra, Borneo, Papua New Guinea, and Cape York, which grow large enough to trap the occasional small critter like lizards.

N. tenax grows pitchers large enough to trap slightly larger creatures, though. The pitchers grow to about 15 cm wide – about 6 inches across – and apparently earn the name “tenax,” which means “tenacious” in Latin. The Daily Mail, that photo-intensive news source, has some pretty good photos that show the size of this plant.

Charles Clarke, an ecologist with James Cook University discovered the N. tenax in 2012. Because of its rarity, the exact location of the discovery has not been revealed. Hopefully, like the Wollemi Pine discovered there a few years ago, Australia’s ecologists and nurseries can work together to breed the plant in large enough numbers to preserve it and prevent poaching, which could endanger such a rare species. Seeds are already for sale.

Other pitcher plants large enough to consume small mammals, lizards, and birds have been discovered elsewhere. In 2007, one was found in the Philippines that could devour mice. A couple of years later it was officially named in honor of Sir David Attenborough.

nepenthes attenboroughii

That means that now Sir David has ten living species named in his honor, and two more that are extinct.

And here’s one, from the same area but grown in Britain, that consumed a bird:

We wonder when a rabbit-eating plant might be found, because we hear those are a real problem Down Under. Australia evolves things to kill other things, so it’s possible.

Rant about Slackers

I count slackers as worthless wastes of perfectly good oxygen that someone else could be breathing. Slackers contribute to the proliferation of greenhouse gases without any compensating positive effect on the world.

I understand laziness; I can be lazy with the best of them. Procrastination? Hey – I’m a champ. I’m not going to condemn anyone for being a little lazy or for procrastinating a bit.

I may be lazy, but I'm no slacker.

But when someone deliberately, intentionally, without reason, refuses to do what is expected of them-and what they are paid to do-I have to draw the line. These people come in different flavors and they come with different insidious excuses.

Mostly, slackers. Also, people who hate kittens.

 

Every boss should encourage the occasional mental health day, just to boost morale among their employees. Such days off allow people to adjust their attitudes. Some severe cases of anal glaucoma need more than a day. They should take a week. Heck, take two. Really think about why they’re coming to work every day. And if the answer is that they hate their jobs or co-workers, they need to find someplace else to suck the soul out of their surroundings. Because by not doing their jobs, they’re making more work for everyone around them, lowering morale, and raising resentments.

When they sit around acting like it’s the weekend when there’s work to be done? That means more stress and more work for everyone else. If all they can do is stare into space, they need to take leave time to get their heads on straight so they can come back to work refreshed and actually do their jobs.

slacker=irresponsible

 

There’s a special, swampy pool of fetid disgust I reserve especially for people who don’t want to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities, in a reasonably timely fashion, and for the benefit of their customers and clients. These, too, are slackers. Too often their reasons for deficient performance come down to “it’s too much effort.”  Do they really think, even for a moment, that other people can’t recognize one of those whiny excuses for what they are? I really hate working with those kinds of people.slackerThis especially applies in industries like law and medicine, where the quality of clients’ and patients’ lives actually depend on the attention we give to detail when taking care of them. If a professional service provider is not willing to do what’s ethically necessary, it’s time for them to look for a new career-because they’re hurting the very people they’re supposed to be helping. They cause a ripple effect of harm that sloshes out messily around them.

 

Slackers: Noah wasn't one.

 

Lazy people who are self-employed don’t stay in business long. That means that the true slackers are working with other people, sucking the productivity and enthusiasm for the project straight out of their colleagues’ souls. That mediocre job the slacker did? It reflects on everyone he works with. Slackers make the rest of the team look bad, cause everyone to lose productivity, and may cost the co-workers and the employer time, money, and respect-all because one jackass didn’t want to do what was expected of him.

Slackers do more (less?) than just fail to pull their weight. They are typically the ones who liberally slobber over gossipy tidbits-usually completely irrelevant to the job at hand-that undermine their managers or their team. These slackers are the ones who deny responsibility for everything, assume responsibility for nothing, and don’t seem to be accountable to anybody. They may have a cliquish gaggle of fawning admirers, or they may be the person no one likes. They always bring everyone else down.

 

Slackers blame everyone else

 

People who make things up, twist the words of others to the point of being unrecognizable, assume they know what someone else’s next words are going to be, and then abdicate their responsibilities based on those things torpedo even the best organizations.
i-m-always-disappointed-when-a-liar-s-pants-don-t-actually-catch-on-fire-t-shirt-road-kill-t-shirts-1

 

Co-workers victimized by this office gossip and finger-pointing blame-shifter tend to hate her. Passionately. She is the one who is ever quick to take credit that belongs elsewhere. Her co-workers know who she is and she makes their work lives miserable. They avoid her whenever possible, which means the rest of the team is missing a cog. She sows discord, foments distrust, and utterly destroys office morale. Naturally, none of that is ever her fault.

The Slackers Handbook

 

Insidious slackers can be at any level of a company. They can be managers, owners, clerical workers, temps, paraprofessionals, and professionals. When I hear that a lawyer does not want to re-revise that contract for the third time, or when I see a doctor unresponsive to his patient’s actual complaints, I have to wonder why they’re even in the office. I identify them as slackers. It’s their jobs to pay attention to details. Not only are they letting their clients or patients down in a devastating way, they’re compromising their own integrity in the process. Maybe they’ve got so much integrity they think they have some to spare. (Hint: they don’t.)

 

throat punch douche

 

I always hope that mercy takes a day off when slackers get called out for their prevarications and defamations. Dishonest? A cheat? Trying to pull a fast one and hoping no one notices? Stabbing someone in the back? Getting fired should be the least of their worries. There is a reason for civil and criminal penalties. By intentionally badmouthing someone else and by interfering with the productivity of others, such people deserve to reap the rewards of such nefarious activities.

Just desserts are sweetest when they are observed, not consumed first-hand.

Have integrity. Don’t be a slacker.

 

I’ve Failed at “Inscrutable”

my inscrutable life is an open book

 

Rehoming Troubled Children

This week, the Arkansas Times broke a tragic story about a sexually abused 6-year-old girl. The most horrifying element of this story is how the girl came to be living with the man who molested her, rather than with the family of the three-term Arkansas state legislator who had legally adopted her.

The facts, as we know them:

The girl and her sisters, who were 8 and 3, were wards of the state of Arkansas. They were in foster care when their natural parents’ parental rights were terminated. In September 2012, the Department of Human Services (DHS) placed the three girls in the home of Justin and Marsha Harris for adoption. Justin Harris is a third-term Republican state representative here in Arkansas. He sits on multiple legislative committees that oversee matters pertaining to children. He also runs an overtly Christian preschool that is unconstitutionally funded with government money.

The oldest girl stayed in the Harrises’ home for just a few weeks before DHS moved her elsewhere. It was obvious that the Harrises’ home was not the right placement for her. The Harrises did eventually adopted the two younger girls.

Then, around October 2013 – just a year after the girls had come to live with them – the Harrises “rehomed” the girls, who they claim were a danger to their family. Eventually, in March 2014, someone called in an anonymous complaint to the Child Abuse Hotline to report that the the girls were no longer in the Harris home. During DHS’s investigation of that complaint, the Harrises’ adopted 6-year-old daughter, by then living with yet another family, revealed that she was touched inappropriately by the man the Harrises had given her to.

When the perpetrator was arrested, Justin Harris made public statements about how tragic it was that any child had gone through such trauma. He never admitted that the victim was his own daughter, or that Harris himself had given her to the man who abused her. Until the anonymous complaint, no one had notified DHS that these little girls were no longer living with the Harrises, who, as their adoptive parents, were receiving a cash subsidy for their support.

Because they were foster children, we can assume that these girls were removed from their biological parents by the state because of neglect or abuse. According to the Arkansas Times story, the 6-year-old had been sexually abused by someone before she was ever placed in the Harris home. The story doesn’t reveal whether this sexual abuse was the reason for the children’s natural parents losing custody, or whether it might have happened while she was in foster care. In all likelihood, that information was not available or ascertainable by the Times reporter, because the records of juvenile courts pertaining to child abuse and neglect cases and adoption records are sealed.

When children are placed for adoption, Arkansas law requires that the adoption not be finalized until the children have been in the adoptive home for at least six months. Typically, if there is no guardianship in place, the court issues a temporary order of adoption when the children are first placed in the adoptive home.

The state might never have known but for a call to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline in March 2014. DHS apparently investigated the abandonment by going to the older child’s school and interviewing her. The child revealed that the caller had told the truth, and that Eric Francis, the man the Harrises had given her to, had molested her. Francis confessed. The molestation had happened in January 2014.

It’s sickening that this little girl was abused, spent time in foster care, was adopted, was abandoned by her adoptive parents, was again molested by the man her adoptive parents gave her to, and was then put in yet another home. It’s horrifying that the abandonment and sexual abuse and second rehoming happened without the knowledge of DHS.

This triggers the juvenile lawyer in me.

I practiced juvenile law for more than 15 years. I saw a lot of abused and chronically neglected kids get adopted into new families. When their existing foster parents adopted them, I wasn’t worried about them nearly as much as when new families adopted them.

In defense of families who give up on children

Children who have been abused have so many emotional and behavioral problems that it takes a special family to take them in. It takes really special – and dedicated – adoptive parents to deal with all the therapy appointments, crises, acting out, insecurities, and everything else that goes along with the trauma of severe child abuse and neglect. And face it: if the abuse and neglect weren’t severe and chronic, those kids wouldn’t be in a position to be adopted.

It’s hard enough if the parent has bonded with an abused child since birth and has shared the joys of the child’s development and personality as well as the despair of something this devastating. It’s much harder to remain committed to a child with whom the parent does not have a strong bond. And it’s harder still when, because of a serious case of reactive attachment disorder, any bond between the parent and child is tenuous and volatile. In my experience, attachment disorder is tragically common in foster children and abused children.

New adoptive parents who think they can manage when they’ve only known a child for a few months have no idea what they’re getting into. The honeymoon period is real; problems may be ignored or minimized because they think the child “just needs time to adjust.” Nope. Those problems aren’t going anywhere, at least not without a lot of seriously intensive help. And truthfully, no matter how young the child was at the time of the abuse or neglect, the trauma from it lingers for a lifetime.

What’s worse, when that six month period between the court orders for the temporary and final adoption nears its end, the new adoptive parents are completely stressed out and exhausted. They don’t have an attachment disorder so they feel committed to the child, who they may not ever be able to handle. Saying no to a clearly troubled child is devastating for well-meaning and deeply compassionate people, especially when there’s an encouraging DHS caseworker standing in the wings, promising that things will improve.

There comes a point at which foster parents and adoptive parents break. Maybe it comes when their natural child is abused by the adoptee. Maybe it comes when the child sets a fire or when the parent wakes up to find the adoptee wielding a knife in a darkened bedroom with mayhem clearly on her mind. Maybe it’s when the family dog is bludgeoned to death. Maybe it’s when feces get smeared all over the walls and furniture. In the worst cases, these kids are so disturbed that they end up institutionalized. (Newsflash: There’s not a lot of love or nurture in a long-term mental institution. They don’t come out “fixed.”)  In his prepared statement yesterday, Rep. Harris said that his family was in danger from these two little girls. Even at the ages of 4 and 6, that might well have been true.

What to do when adoptions go wrong

I have no doubt that the Harrises meant well when they adopted these children. The problem isn’t that they wanted to adopt. I’m sure they had every intention of giving these children their “forever” home. The problem is that when the adoption went south, they passed already-traumatized children off to non-professionals who had not been vetted. The Harrises had no way of knowing whether the new home would meet the needs of children whose needs the Harrises apparently could not meet. Without the help of the state, it’s highly unlikely that the severe emotional issues of these children – issues that caused the Harris adoption to fail – could get addressed adequately.

I won’t condemn the Harrises for giving up on a pair of seriously troubled children. I’ve worked with these kinds of kids and their natural, foster, and adoptive families. I’ve seen how tough it can be to live with a deeply disturbed child. It’s can be emotionally and physically draining for the parents and completely disruptive to other children already in the home. Not everyone can or should take on such a situation. When they realize the situation is beyond them, the potential adoptive parents should throw in the towel – it’s best for the child and for themselves. So, no, I don’t condemn the Harrises for deciding that these children shouldn’t live in their home.

When a situation with a child gets that bad, though, there are avenues for relief. The first thing parents can do is seek medical intervention for the child. This kind of help includes mental health treatment, therapy, and even institutional treatment. If the parents can’t afford the medical or mental health treatment, they can tap the resources of the state.

Arkansas juvenile law allows parents of troubled children to file a petition with the court to claim status as a “Family in Need of Services” (FINS). Even with no resources of their own or only modest ones, families can ask the state for assistance with therapy, treatment, and even temporary foster care for their troubled children. By saying formally that they can’t cope with their child’s problems alone, they are not deemed bad parents. Parents who avail themselves of the state’s resources are not abandoning their children, even if a judge decides that the child should be removed from their home – and even if the parent asks the court to remove the child from the home for the safety of one or more other family members. When parents have to choose which of their children to protect, they need the help of the system.

With a FINS action, the parent can ask that the state take custody of the child. There are special foster homes that are specifically trained to provide therapeutic foster care to seriously troubled children who disrupt from regular homes. The Harrises could have availed themselves of such training had they been serious about keeping the girls in their home, too.

When problems arise with adopted children, adoptive parents are encouraged to get help directly from DHS.  “[I]f you’re having difficulties or troubles with a child you adopted from us, reach out to us, we have resources that can help families,” said DHS spokesperson Amy Webb when asked about the situation.

There were services the Harrises could have tapped to get help, and when all else failed, the children could have gone back into the foster care system. While they might have had more disruptions and uncertainty there, as wards of the state they at least would have had a caseworker who was ultimately responsible for seeing that they were safe and had the treatment, education, and basic requirements of living in a non-abusive environment.

If it looks like abuse, sounds like abuse, and smells like abuse

Children aren’t pets. Responsible parents – natural or adoptive – don’t just give them away when they become inconvenient, and parents don’t surrender their parental rights or responsibilities when they park their troubled kids with someone else.

According to the statement the Harrises’ attorney issued yesterday, they apparently felt that they could not seek any help for the children:

Due to threats of possible abandonment charges, they were unable to reach out to [the Arkansas Department of Human Services] for help with children who presented a serious risk of harm to other children in their home. Upon the advice of both a psychiatrist and a pediatrician, they were forced to move the children to the home of trusted friends, who had a lot of experience with children with reactive attachment disorder. Rep. and Mrs. Harris are devastated about the outcome of that decision, but faced with no good option, they did the best that they knew how.

This statement raised more questions than it answered.

Presumably Rep. Harris had some clue as to how the law in this area works – he is vice-chairman of the state House Committee that oversees matters pertaining to youth and children, after all.

Why didn’t the Harrises make sure that these children, at least one of whom had already been severely abused, were able to get the services they needed in a stable and loving home? Giving them away to another family – one that had not been vetted and made perfectly aware of the needs of these children by professionals and not merely by a pair of frustrated and overwrought adoptive parents – is abuse and neglect in and of itself. They packed one trauma on top of another when they gave these kids away to be rehomed. They set the children up for the abuse that was to follow.

Furthermore, what they did clearly constitutes child abandonment. “Rehoming” happens a lot, even to children who aren’t adopted. Think of the children who live with grandparents or other relatives because their parents are not able or willing to take care of them. There is no state involvement unless the new custodian goes to court to get guardianship.

Rehoming is often very informal. The people who acquire possession of a child this way don’t have legal rights. Without legal guardianship, they have at most a power of attorney from the legal parents or guardians, and they don’t usually even have that. This means the person who the child lives with is not legally able to consent to medical care, can’t enroll the children in school, and can’t apply for government benefits for the children.

Questions needing straight answers

But these aren’t the only questions that demand answers. Michael Cook at Talk Business and Politics has a long list. I agree with each and every question he’s asked, and want to add a few more:

  1. Were Justin and Marsha Harris trained as a therapeutic placement for seriously disturbed children?
  2. Did the Harrises ever consider residential treatment for these girls? If so, why didn’t it happen? If not, why not?
  3. Who was the “head of DHS” who told the Harrises that abandonment charges would be pursued against them if they tried to dissolve the adoption?
  4. Were Eric and Stacey Francis trained as therapeutic foster parents?
  5. Did the Harrises give the Francises power of attorney to take care of the girls’ medical, financial, and educational needs?
  6. Did anyone ever talk to the Harrises about a FINS petition?

When he spoke briefly with the press without making a statement yesterday, Harris understandably looked strained and upset. I have no doubt that he and his wife are heartbroken over the way the adoption unfolded, not to mention traumatized the negative publicity swirling around them now.

Justin Harris

Screen grab from video posted on KATV

At his press conference this afternoon, a clearly emotional Harris described a hellish situation. If pets are being tortured and killed and the rest of the family has to sleep barricaded away from the adopted children, there are obviously very serious problems. The Harrises’ home may not have been a suitable placement for those children.

But I find it difficult to believe that the “head of DHS” threatened to file abandonment charges against him and his wife if they gave the children back, despite the fact that the therapist, psychiatrist and pediatrician all recommended that the children be removed. DHS definitely does ask the courts to dissolve adoptions when all else fails.

I practiced juvenile law for 15 years before I threw in the towel myself, burned out and discouraged at the horrible things people did to their children and the unresponsiveness of the state agency tasked with protecting children. I know that DHS caseworkers routinely dole out threats and misinformation to people who need help. DHS is rarely held accountable for failing the people it is supposed to protect and serve.

There is more to this story. It all needs to come out. It’s not going to be easy for the Harrises. It may not make them look very good, but my guess is that DHS won’t look very clean, either. No one is going to “win” this investigation.

But wait – there’s more

For abandoning troubled children into the questionable care of others, both Harrises should investigated for child neglect – and that investigation should not be done by DHS. No agency is capable of policing itself.

If Justin and Marsha Harris neglected and abandoned their adopted daughters, they should be listed in the Child Maltreatment Central Registry, which lists people who have been found to have committed child abuse and/or child neglect. I’ve represented parents who have been listed in the registry and had their other children removed from their custody for less.

Listing them in that registry would disqualify them from operating a daycare or preschool. No more state funds would go to support that patently religious institution run by a state legislator, something that is entirely unconstitutional to begin with. Another problem solved.

Furthermore, Justin and Marsha Harris must be forthcoming with proof that they forwarded the adoption subsidy to the girls’ actual caretakers. The subsidy is taxpayer money intended to get treatment and assistance for children whose natural parents have already abused and/or neglected them to the point of getting their parental rights terminated. If someone other than their caretakers was getting the government assistance intended to address these children’s emotional, physical, developmental, and medical needs, that’s fraud.

I’m no fan of Justin Harris. He’s a hyper-religious Republican who ignores separation of church and state with great abandon, something that deeply offends me. But in this situation, I’m not ready to condemn him or his wife. I’ve seen the ugly side of an uncooperative DHS too many times over the years to disbelieve their version of events entirely.

Investigative journalism is the bedrock of democracy

Investigative journalism is an important and necessary way to get things like this addressed properly. Benji Hardy, with help from Leslie Newell Peacock, has done a fantastic job of exposing this rot. Had Justin and Marsha Harris been more forthcoming about the situation when the press asked, there might be a bellowing call for investigation of DHS right now instead of the pillorying the Harrises are getting in the national press. DHS’s shortcomings are in dire need of exposure, because they are outrageous. DHS has more power to ruin lives than just about any other state agency, and they do it regularly.

When we allow the decline of print media, we forget that excellent journalists like Benji Hardy keep our government and our elected officials accountable. If you live in Arkansas but don’t subscribe to the Arkansas Times, change that. This weekly paper has some of the best, most astute, and well-seasoned serious journalists in the state working for it. Don’t ever dismiss it as just restaurant reviews and a calendar of community events.

And about that First Amendment – without it, articles like this one might never see the light of day. I maintain it is the best, most essential, and most humane of all the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. All of the others flow from it.

 

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