Archives for February 2014

Are we missing something?

It happened again last week. Leaders of a social services agency were hauled before a legislative committee to Silhouette of helping hand between two climberexplain why vulnerable people under their care were injured or died.

This time, the leaders represented Child Protective Services (CPS), the Texas agency responsible for the protection of children in foster care.

It happened 20 years ago when I was spokesperson for what was then known as the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. The heads of my agency would be subpoenaed to testify at the state capitol about cases of abuse, neglect and death at state institutions.

Lawmakers always expressed outrage. The agency leaders always expressed regret and promised to do better.

History repeats itself — everywhere

This kind of historical repetition is not unique to Texas. It happens all over the country.

In the 1960s, the late Sen. Robert Kennedy toured Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, New York, and was appalled at the conditions he found. He told reporters afterward that people treat their pets better than the mentally disabled children were being treated at Willowbrook.

There was a huge public outcry, but nothing changed at the school. A few years later, television reporter Geraldo Rivera took a camera inside Willowbrook and captured on film the abusive and neglectful conditions.

There was another public outcry and legislative investigations. Money was appropriated and agency leaders promised to do better.

It seems to go in cycles. Every few years, there are news reports of vulnerable people – living under the supposed watchful eye of a tax-supported agency – who have been killed or badly hurt.

 We’ve heard all this before

This week, the leaders of CPS said they were taking aggressive steps to protect foster kids. Foster parents are being more closely scrutinized. Foster children are being visited more often. Training of case workers has been ramped up so they can better spot abuse. Technology is being upgraded and abuse prevention programs are being launched.

One senator said he had heard all these kinds of promises before. He wondered what is different this time. Another senator remarked that they must be missing something.

Both senators are right. They’ve heard all this before. And they are missing something.

What they are missing – what we all are missing – is that these outrageous situations will continue to occur as long as we underfund social services.

And even then, even if we provide adequate funding, the deaths and injuries will not end. We can only get close to that goal when each of us assumes responsibility for all of our vulnerable citizens – including children, people with disabilities and the elderly.

Making a more decent society

I like what my colleague J. David Smith, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says about this issue.

Dr. Smith, who has written extensively about the treatment of people with disabilities, says we don’t have to all become social workers or in some way devote our lives to caring for these folks. We don’t have to all be like the Good Samaritan in the Bible, who risked his life and social standing to help someone others had shunned.

“We need more acutely, however, the day-to-day caring of the Minimal Decent Samaritans,” he wrote in his excellent book Ignored, Shunned and Invisible: How the Label “Retarded” has Denied Freedom and Dignity to Millions.

“It is that quality in ourselves and others that makes for a more decent society.”

To that, I say a hearty amen.

The moment I dreaded is here

In the past few months, I’ve had to find a place for my aging mother to live where she can be safe and have her needs bigstock-nursing homemet. In other words, I’ve been most concerned about getting her the basic necessities – decent food, a clean atmosphere, prompt attention to her medical needs — not finding her a place where she can really live.

I never wanted to get to this moment.

I had hoped and prayed that Mom would be able to live out her days in the independent living community she moved to several years ago. It was clean, smelled good, was nicely decorated and the food bordered on excellent. She had a group of friends she ate with at every meal and felt at home in her one-bedroom apartment.

Game changing events

But that life came to a halt after a series of falls, two broken bones and two surgeries. It was more than she could bounce back from. Later this week, she’ll have to move to the nursing home wing of the rehab hospital she’s been in since late October.

I dread this eventuality. I’m sure Mom dreads it, too, more than I. It just seems to me that we ought to do better for our aging folks than to sentence them to nursing homes.

Who in their right mind thinks it’s humane to cram two people into one room and provide them with a curtain for so-called privacy? In what universe is it okay to prop people in wheelchairs and leave them, heads hanging, in front of a television set?

Even the best is unacceptable

The nursing home Mom is going to is considered one of the best in town. But I don’t want her living there. The terrible thing is, I don’t have a choice.

Mom can’t walk anymore and she has almost no strength, so she needs help transferring from bed to wheelchair. I can’t even get her in and out of my car without the help of two other people.

My distress is shared by thousands of other folks. On a recent Linked-In discussion group, the topic was whether young people with disabilities should live in long term care facilities, AKA nursing homes. One respondent from Brazil said in her country, it is not culturally acceptable to place family members in such settings.

She also remarked that family members can bring about change for their loved ones by being strong advocates. And finally, she said, the laws need to be updated to accommodate the growing aging population.

I agree with her 100 percent. But I also think in this country we need social and cultural change. Putting people away – whether they are aging or merely disabled – needs to become a thing of the past.