27 November 2009

When it Comes to Healthcare Reform, Government isn’t the Enemy

Winter is coming on and Congress and the rest of us continue our spirited debate over healthcare reform - understandable considering what’s at stake and the slew of devils in the details. I’m all for taking our time and getting it right. There's plenty for conservatives and liberals alike to cringe about what's being proposed. But one point that continues to pop up among the Ann Coulters of the late night talk show circuit, however, rubs me the wrong way: the “Do you really want government running healthcare?” point, which is insulting.

Government isn’t the enemy.

Despite all the criticism and its shortcomings, government does a pretty good job with a vast array of services that we all have the luxury of taking for granted: defending us from harm; getting mail to us reasonably quickly and inexpensively; educating (all) our children - regardless of gargantuan disparities in culture, socio-economic status and myriad other challenges among its consumers; ensuring that our highways are safe enough to drive on (been to India lately?) and our water is clean enough to drink....

Consequently, I'm less fearful of government taking a more substantial role in healthcare than Ms. Coulter and some others are. For me, some things are just too important (the courts) or too big (natural disasters) to leave to the private sector alone. Healthcare falls into both categories.

Truth be told, I haven’t been any more impressed with the efficiency or customer service delivery of big corporations than I have with big government. Dealt with the automated operator at your local energy company lately? Or telephone provider? Or Blue Cross Blue Shield, for that matter? Before you finally decide you’ve been on hold long enough and hang up, it will sound a lot like bureaucracy. But I got my North Carolina driver license reinstated last week at the much-maligned DMV just fine despite big budget cuts and staff reductions.

I’ve worked closely alongside a number of Departments of Social Services (DSS) throughout my career – an agency whose reputation epitomizes the ineffectiveness of government. But the problem with every DSS (and most other public human service agency) I've known is lack of funding. Not leadership, innovation, creativity, efficiency, motivation. Unlike private companies, public welfare agencies can’t turn away customers. Since abused children and indigent adults have never been much of a national priority, funds are perennially inadequate and case loads among social workers swell to unmanageable numbers. If you think DSS does a shoddy job, you should lobby for more funding.

If the recent scandals by scoundrels on Wall Street taught us anything, it should be that the private sector isn’t always the knight-in-shining-armor answer to all our problems that the anti-government throng would want us to be believe. I’m at least as suspicious of the motives and intentions of big business as I am of big government. The public and private sectors are equally susceptible to greed and gluttony and mismanagement and incompetency....

But here’s the honest truth: left to the private sector, our healthcare system has failed us. Acknowledging this reality doesn’t make me a socialist.

Free-market capitalism (undeniably the greatest economic system in the world) has one function: to make as hefty a profit as possible and fleece the pockets of its shareholders. That's why there's such a disconnect when it comes to reconciling a system with dollar signs rolling around its eyes with ensuring the health of a nation. That's why we don't leave the courts to private companies, for example. The point of court isn't to make money. Consequently, it falls beyond the scope of a for-profit company. Same argument for the healthcare industry. Necessary functions of a civilized society which don’t, by nature, generate revenue nor follow the traditional laws of supply and demand should be left to government and the nonprofit sector.

Government isn’t the enemy.

Consider: only government had the wherewithal to dam the mighty Colorado and subsequently bring life to the wild west or connect all corners of the country through its Interstate highway system or to take on Governor Wallace when he was standing in the doorways of the University of Alabama to keep blacks from entering in or to distribute enough flu shots to ward off a pandemic or keep lead out of the paint on the walls of the schools where my children sit everyday...

Certainly, government has its flaws. It will never be the only answer. When it fails, we should all call it to task and insist it work better for us. The federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina was disgraceful. We learn from our mistakes and improve – for the sake of victims of the inevitable next natural disaster. But government shouldn’t just turn a blind eye and hope others step up to the plate. Collectively, as a people, we have a responsibility to lend a hand to those in need. We can't all drop everything and rebuild houses on the gulf coast. But, we all pay taxes and, for most of us, that's the contribution we can make.

Nor should we categorically dismiss a public option, for example, because government isn't perfect. That’s a slap in the face of all of us who participate in its process by paying taxes, electing officials and writing letters to our senators. And it seems like a contradiction when such rhetoric comes from the party that most likes to drape itself in the flag and stake its claim to patriotism.

Government isn’t the enemy. We are the government. Call me naive, but I just happen to believe that we the people are capable of great feats and our aspirations should be mighty. Perhaps healthcare reform will be the Hoover Dam of my generation.

13 October 2009

Mentoring Works

The challenges that many young people face these days are well known. The truth of the matter is that it's tough being a kid. Add a few unfortunate circumstances to the equation, or "risk factors" as we call them in the human services field, such as living in poverty or growing up in an abusive home, and the odds for success become even steeper.

Unfortunately, certain neighborhoods in the Southside of Chicago and other pockets throughout the US provide the perfect formula for failure for its young people. For too many, the odds are almost insurmountable.

But, it's not all bad news. Every day, children who are on a collision course with failure find that spark within themselves and figure out a way to buck the trend. Children are amazingly resilient. The ones who survive typically have someone in their corner.

I've spent most of my career working with children and have come to the realization that the most effective way for wounded children to heal is through the power of relationships. What many of our vulnerable children need most is some responsible adult in their lives who can send this message loud and clear: "I'm just not going to let you fail."

Preferably from someone who isn't paid to be there, like a volunteer mentor.

The benefits of mentoring are irrefutable: youth with mentors have better attendance and attitude toward school, have less drug and alcohol use, have more trusting relationships and better communication with parents and caregivers, are less violent, have a better chance of going on to higher education and are less likely to get pregnant (to name a few). City officials in Chicago (as well as the White House) are wise to push mentoring as one solution to the violence wreaking havoc in some of its schools and communities. More cities should do the same.

It's been estimated that there are 17.6 million young people in the United States who could benefit from a one-on-one mentoring relationship, but only 2.5 million have one (that's less than 15 percent).

The impact of spending an hour or so a week with a child can be tremendous.

Ask Durham (NC) City Councilman Mike Woodard. Years ago, Mike mentored a young boy who was failing miserably in school. Mike noticed that he had real artistic talent and enrolled him in a series of classes at the Durham Arts Council. Almost immediately, his outlook improved. His grades got better and he was less of a trouble-maker. The boy eventually graduated from high school and enrolled in a community college to pursue a degree in commercial art. Who knows what path he would have taken if not for Mike?

Like most mentors, Mike claims that the experience was just as positive for him as for the child. He continues to be a strong supporter of mentoring. In fact, he and I worked together to form an alliance of mentoring organizations in Durham a few years ago in an effort to find a suitable mentor for every kid in town who needs one.

Or ask Tasha Melvin, who runs mentoring programs at a local nonprofit. At age 6, Tasha and her twin sister were matched with a mentor, Jane Gallagher, whom Tasha claims "transformed" their lives. When Tasha talks about Jane, with a quiver in her voice and a tear in her eye, there becomes little doubt about the value of mentors. Even though Jane was introduced to the twins nearly three decades ago, her impact is still felt every day. Tasha went on to dedicate herself to helping young people like her who had a rough start in life.

Undeniably, too many of our children are in trouble. But solutions exist. And almost everyone can contribute in some way. Perhaps mentoring a young child who needs a positive, adult role model in his or her life can be your contribution.

You don't need any special skills or education to be a good mentor. You just need to care about kids and have a little extra time on your hands. And it doesn't cost a lot of money. A birthday present or a Happy Meal from time to time may be appropriate. But most mentoring programs I know about specifically ask that you don't spend much money on the child. Mostly what the kid will need from you is your time, as well as your patience, trust, respect and ear. And to teach them the really important things in life: how to tie a tie or make a grilled cheese sandwich or balance a checkbook or treat a girlfriend with respect...

Sound like something you can do? For more information and to find a mentoring program in your area, visit: mentoring.org

01 September 2009

Misunderstanding of Common Childhood Mental Health Disorder is Major Problem in US Foster Care System

A few years ago, I spent a good bit of my time crisscrossing the country lecturing on the topic of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) -- a mental health disorder common among children who were subject to severe abuse and neglect during critical stages of brain development in infancy.

I argued then that the misdiagnosing and subsequent counterproductive treatment of the disorder was the single biggest issue confounding the child welfare system.

I still think that’s true. I don’t see any evidence that the situation is improving. In fact, it’s reached a crisis point and we need to make this issue more a part of our national dialogue.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is caused when an infant doesn’t bond properly to its primary caregiver. This basic loss results in ongoing feelings of rage, shame, lack of trust, a morbid fear of attaching to anyone, an inability to understand cause and effect thinking and a compulsive need to control everyone and every situation.

Extreme cases are typically caused by chronic neglect in early infancy followed by years of instability -- an all-too-common formula for children in foster care.

Without proper intervention, these children have little chance of meaningful relationships. In foster care, they often bounce from foster home to foster home as one well-meaning foster parent after another gives up because of the severity of the child's behavior problems; each move exacerbates the condition. Children with RAD are masterful at rejecting caregivers and burning bridges.

They get labeled “unadoptable” and frequently spend their entire childhoods in foster care, a system designed to be temporary. The far end of the continuum includes children who are violent, destructive, unmanageable, dangerous and sociopathic.

Experiences early in life have a tremendously important impact on the developing brain. We recognize now that it doesn’t take a fist or a blunt object to cause brain damage.

In the cerebral cortex (where language, emotion and logic are developed), for example, trauma or lack of stimulation during infancy leads to the underdevelopment of neurotransmitters in that region. Consequently, this section of the brain is actually smaller in abused, neglected children than in healthy children. Traumatized infants secrete abnormally high amounts of stress hormones which have myriad adverse and long-term effects, as well. So, when a child with RAD seems incapable of trust or empathy or remorse, there’s good reason to believe that its etiology is neurological in nature and not just willful disobedience. 

The good news is that with proper treatment, RAD children rehabilitate and function well in families and society. There’s even reason to be optimistic that damaged areas of the brain can be repaired. In the hands of a skilled Attachment Therapist along with the commitment of an invested caregiver, children with RAD typically show signs of marked improvement in a matter of months.

However, traditional insight-oriented, relationship-based, cognitive/behavioral therapies are ineffective in treating the disorder, and in some ways counterproductive. As are typical parenting methods. Without proper treatment, children with compromised attachment continue to struggle in virtually all settings: home, school, residential treatment programs, etc. That’s the big problem: only a small percentage of the children who need specialized treatment for the disorder are receiving it. We insist on putting square pegs in round holes and shaking our heads at its futility. 

When I was on the road, everywhere I went, workshop participants complained about lack of resources for these children. We need more clinicians trained in an attachment model; we need more accurate diagnosing. These children are frequently misdiagnosed because their symptoms can look like a lot of different disorders, Bipolar Disorder and ADHD, for example. We waste a lot of precious time going down the wrong path with these kids. Key players system-wide need a better understanding of the nuances of the disorder including social workers, judges, pediatricians, children’s attorneys and advocates, not just mental health workers.

Caregivers need special training to be effective. Behavior management strategies such as positive reinforcement, time out, token economies and other standard parenting techniques just don’t work with these children. Too often, foster and adoptive parents lose faith in the mental health and social service systems. They feel helpless and hopeless regarding any positive outcome and they give up. Who can blame them?

And, there’s no escaping politics. Especially in child welfare, treatment often comes down to a battle among the state, the courts and insurance companies over who’s responsible for payment -- particularly in communities where specialized treatment isn’t readily available and the only option is sending the child out-of-state for expensive treatment. Too often, the child doesn’t get the help he or she needs.

Instead he wastes time in the office of an ill-equipped therapist. We then blame the child for not making progress. To me, it’s analogous to prescribing Tylenol for a child with diabetes who needs insulin to survive, and then absolving yourself of responsibility once you do. It’s unconscionable, but it’s what I see a lot of communities doing.

It is estimated that RAD affects 3-6% of the overall population. But it is rampant within the child welfare system, I think. There’s no way to know for sure how many of the approximately 600,000 foster children in the US are suffering from RAD, but I’m positive the disorder is flying under the radar and contributing significantly to the chaotic state of our foster care system. I personally know dozens of children who’ve been in ten, fifteen, even 30 different foster homes. Again, I attribute much of problem to undiagnosed and untreated RAD.

The prognosis is poor for children with RAD who don’t get the help they need as they reach adulthood and are released from protective care. Approximately 20,000 foster children age out of the system each year, often with no familial connections and nowhere to go. Too often they end up homeless, incarcerated, institutionalized and dead. And, they’re raising the next generation of attachment-compromised children. Inadequate mental health care is one of the primary reasons for such dismal outcomes.

If the State is going to be so bold as to remove a child from his parents because they’re incapable, then it has a responsibility to provide the highest quality of services for that child. The child is already at a tremendous disadvantage. The State, acting in loco parentis, should expect and demand the same high level of medical, mental health and educational services as any good parent would for their child. Unfortunately, that’s not happening.

The consequences for society are more far-reaching than one might realize. We already know that a vast majority of habitual felons were abused as children. I don’t think it takes much to extrapolate that a large percentage of them are adults with undiagnosed and untreated RAD. Our prisons are filled with RAD kids grown up, I believe.

It makes sense when you consider that children with RAD typically lack self-control, have antisocial attitudes and behavior, are aggressive and violent and lack empathy, compassion and remorse. Isn’t that exactly the same set of adjectives we use to describe hardened criminals?

Like most disorders, prevention and early intervention are the best solutions. I recommend learning more about RAD by visiting the website for the Association for Treatment and Training of Attachment of Children (ATTACh) at www.attach.org, where you’ll also be able to locate registered attachment therapists and clinics in your area.

It comes down to priorities. We know what the problem is and what the solution is. What’s left to be seen is whether we’ll actually devote the energy and resources to fix it.

Neglected child's brain underdeveloped

22 August 2009

Decision to Reinstate Michael Vick is the Right One

At the risk of offending my PETA friends, I’m writing to defend the NFL’s decision to reinstate Michael Vick. With all the banter on my Facebook pages about it these days, you would think he was being considered for a seat on the US Supreme Court. It’s football, people.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Michael Vick fan. I find his actions reprehensible. But, he served his time. He paid his debt to society and I don’t see what’s wrong with him returning to the position he held before he was sentenced – a quarterback in the NFL. As grandiose as we make professional sports, it’s still a job. To deny him the opportunity seems like double jeopardy.

Plus, all the court-ordered charity work on behalf of animal causes will have greater impact if he's on a national stage (instead of washing cars in Blacksburg), regardless of whether his remorse is sincere.

Generally speaking, I think everyone deserves a second chance, especially when it comes to released convicts and employment. The system has a way of keeping the “undesirables” down and out. I don’t think I’ve worked for a company in 20 years that would consider hiring anyone with a felony conviction on their record, regardless of the circumstances or whether the potential candidate was rehabilitated. Personally, I’d rather have former inmates gainfully employed than back on the streets, desperate and destitute. But that’s a topic for another day.

Most of the objections regarding Vick I’ve heard seem to be centered on him not being a suitable role-model for the young people who idolize NFL quarterbacks. And that’s the bigger issue. There’s nothing about being a star athlete that qualifies one for being a good role-model, in the first place. It would be nice if they all were. And every now and then, one emerges. But that’s the exception. Just because you can throw strikes or form tackle hard or dunk better than most, doesn’t make you a decent person. I think there are lessons children can learn from any successful athlete in terms of hard work and determination, but when it comes to behavior off the field (and, in many cases, even on the field), I have no interest in elevating athletes to the important stature of role model for my children.

If he were applying for a position running Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska, one would have to consider Michael Vick’s poor judgment and recent conviction as strikes against him. But he’s not. He’s applying to be Donavon McNabb’s back-up, a job that has absolutely nothing to do with being a role model.

I remember Charles Barkley causing a stir several years ago when he insisted that he wasn’t anybody’s role model and shouldn’t be considered one. As it turns out, Sir Charles is a decent guy and probably a much better role model than most pro athletes these days. But his point is right on. Just when you think you want your boy to grow up and be just like Michael Phelps, there he goes smoking dope from a bong for all the world to see.

As long as our young folks are looking to celebrities, including professional athletes, as role models, we’re in trouble.

Instead, we need to ensure that our children are surrounded by positive adult influences: teachers, aunts and uncles, mentors, ministers, people in the community who’ve overcome obstacles to succeed… Surely, if there are enough “real” people in our children’s lives serving in that capacity, celebrities should have less influence, which is a good thing.

Still, there are some lessons to be learned by our children in all of this: lessons about compassion, humility, forgiveness. And we can use Vick to show kids that anyone can change if you learn your lesson or that no matter how big you are in society's eyes you too can spend two years behind bars if you break the rules. Don’t squander teachable moments, even if it’s not the lesson you were hoping to teach.

The bottom line is that the NFL is a business whose primary purpose is to make money, like all businesses. Commissioner Roger Goodell made a business decision. There are certainly risks involved in re-instating Vick. Ad revenue could be lost; fan support among certain demographics may dwindle. But Goodell weighed the pros and cons and decided that it was worth the risk to have Vick in the league (same for the Eagles who signed him). Goodell is no dummy. There’s no such thing as bad “buzz” this time of year when the season is ramping up to kickoff. I would be surprised if Goodell (and the Eagles) aren’t salivating at the new-found intrigue the controversy is creating.

But, because the NFL is a consumer-driven business, the casual fan certainly has a role to play. Don’t feel comfortable with Vick in the league? Don’t watch games or buy NFL merchandise.

The truth of the matter is that the NFL and all other professional sports leagues are comprised of a combination of saints and thugs and everything in between – just like the rest of society. I’m just not sure where one would start drawing the line when it comes to morality.

My final point: If you live long enough (which I have) and you can be honest with yourself (which I'm trying), it gets easier to embrace this concept: "Who Am I to Judge?" Forgiveness is the noblest virtue. Give the guy a chance.

31 July 2009

Death Penalty Should be Abolished in NC, Elsewhere

It’s been two years since anyone was executed in North Carolina. However, in the past few weeks, several legislative actions and court decisions point to executions resuming in the Tar Heel State in the near future - although the same issues exist today that prompted the State's self-imposed moratorium two years ago.

What is clear is that our system of capital punishment remains far from perfect. Since the moratorium on executions was put in place, three innocent men were freed from death row in North Carolina. They served a combined 41 years and faced death for crimes they did not commit.

The system is too rife with intractable and intrinsic flaws to be trusted when life and death hangs in the balance. Nationally, since the reinstatement of the modern death penalty, 87 people have been freed from death row because they were later proven innocent - a demonstrated error rate of 1 innocent person for every 7 persons executed, an unconscionable ratio in a civilized society, in my opinion.

A shocking two out of three death penalty convictions have been overturned on appeal because of police and prosecutorial misconduct, as well as serious errors by incompetent court-appointed defense attorneys with little experience in trying capital cases.

In fact, all too often, life or death comes down to whether you can afford competent legal counsel. If you’re rich enough to afford a good attorney, you WILL NOT be sentenced to death.

Perhaps the greatest argument against the death penalty is that it is handed out in a biased, racially disparate manner. Comprehensive studies conclude that race plays a significant role in who gets the death penalty - not only race of the defendant but race of the victim as well. In fact, defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims. No matter how the data is analyzed, race of the victim always emerges as an important factor in who receives the death penalty.

Research also shows that black defendants are almost 4 times more likely to receive the death penalty than non-blacks. These results were obtained after analyzing and controlling for case differences such as the severity of the crime and the background of the defendant. The data were subjected to various forms of analysis, but the conclusion was clear: blacks are being sentenced to death far in excess of other defendants for similar crimes.

American Justice is hardly color blind. Blacks are frequently put to death for murdering whites, but whites are almost never executed for murdering blacks. If you’re black and poor, the odds are stacked against you. Such a system of injustice is not merely unfair and unconstitutional – it tears at the very principles to which this country struggles to adhere.

The arguments in favor of the death penalty are weak. There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than long terms of imprisonment, even though "deterrence" is often sited at the number one reason among its proponents. States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws. And states that have abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in either crime or murder rates. Claims that each execution deters a certain number of murders have been thoroughly discredited by social science research.

A recent study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology reported that 88% of the country’s top criminologists surveyed do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide. Eighty-seven percent of them think that the abolition of the death penalty would not have a significant effect on murder rates and 77% believe that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.”

The only compelling argument for capital punishment, for me, comes down to retribution (just another word for revenge). The desire for revenge is one of the lowest human emotions. Although sometimes understandable, it's not a rational response to a critical situation. To kill the person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence which ultimately destroys the avenger as well as the offender.

Make no mistake: If someone committed a heinous act against someone I love, all my rhetoric against the death penalty would be out the window; I'd want to cast the first stone. That’s precisely why we have an unbiased, rational, objective, emotionally detached system of justice in place; otherwise vigilantism would work just fine.

Expressing one’s violence simply reinforces the desire to express it. Just as expressing anger simply makes us more angry. It contaminates the otherwise good will which any human being needs to progress in love, understanding, forgiveness and mercy – the higher, more noble human conditions to which a person and a society should aspire.

The bottom line is that the system is broken. Arguments in favor of the death penalty in spite of the system's flaws are inadequate. Therefore, the moratorium on executions should remain in force in North Carolina. Other states should end the practice, as well.

18 May 2009

Lifting Charter School Cap Good for Children, Good for NC

Last week, the North Carolina House passed bill 856 which modifies the cap on public charter schools from 100 to 106. It now moves on to the State Senate. At present, there are 97 public charter schools serving approximately 33,000 students throughout the state.

HB 856 is a step in the right direction, but much too small of one. Today, more than 16,000 children throughout North Carolina are on waiting lists for public charter schools. We would need at least 20 new schools right now just to meet current demand.

Not only would the proposed modest cap change still leave thousands of children on waiting lists, there is a significant financial cost as well. At a time when the state is scrambling to find revenue to fund schools, lifting the cap by only six would place the state at a disadvantage for subsequent rounds of federal stimulus funding and severely limit the amount of funds North Carolina could receive from US Dept of Ed Charter School Program.

Additionally, North Carolina stands to miss out on a number of innovative national education initiatives and substantial national private foundation money, certain to go to states more receptive to charter growth instead.

While the North Carolina Alliance of Public Charter Schools would like to see a complete lift of the cap, it is currently focusing its efforts on pushing for recommendations outlined by the Blue Ribbon Commission, a group of education leaders appointed by the North Carolina State Board of Education in 2007 to examine public charter schools in the state.

The Commission recommendations include approving up to six new public charter schools each year, allowing public charters with a proven track record of success (particularly those successful in closing the achievement gap for at-risk students) to replicate without counting towards the cap and allowing the first public charter school in a county without a charter school to not count towards the cap.

Most North Carolinians want the cap lifted. In fact, according to a public opinion survey recently released, nearly two-thirds of North Carolina voters (65 percent) favor the state legislature passing a law to lift the current cap on public charter schools.

The survey also found that support for lifting the cap cut across party lines—65 percent of registered Democrats favor increasing the number of charter schools, as does 70 percent of unaffiliated voters and 61 percent of Republicans.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have both enthusiastically come out in support of increasing the number of public charter schools.

Most states across the nation have recognized that there is a critical need to try new and innovative approaches to improving student achievement in our public schools. Public charter schools give parents choices within the public school system. They have the flexibility to try innovative ways of improving learning with the goal of sharing what works with the broader public school system so that all students benefit.

Public charter schools are held to higher standards of accountability than traditional public schools. Not only are they accountable to the families that chose them, they’re also accountable to their authorizer, the State Board of Education, who can close down the school if it doesn’t meet its fiscal and operational goals.

High quality public charter schools are good for children. And good for North Carolina. By lifting the cap on public charter schools, we all gain.

Stephen Raburn is acting executive director for the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

25 April 2009

Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center...Fighting the Good Fight for Four Decades

I'm writing to introduce you to Morris Dees, an Alabama lawyer and hero of mine, who needs our help in his fight to put dangerous hate groups out of business.

Morris grew up on a small cotton farm in the deep south and went to law school at the University of Alabama. Soon after he graduated, Klansman bombed a Birmingham church, killing four little black girls. It was a tragedy that would eventually change Morris' life.

Leaving behind a successful business career, Morris began defending blacks in high-profile racially-motivated court cases -- not only unpopular but dangerous for a white man at the height of the civil rights struggle. In 1971, he founded the renowned Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery to carry on his fight for justice.

Since then, Morris and his colleagues have filed a series of lawsuits that have put dangerous hate groups out of business. More than two dozen people have been convicted in connection with plots to kill Morris or blow up his offices because of his courageous work.

A recent Ted Koppel documentary highlighted the $7 million verdict Morris won against the United Klans for lynching a black youth. This was the same Klan group that was responsible for the church bombing that killed the four little girls in Birmingham. Morris' case bankrupted the group.

I met Morris at a human rights' conference in Atlanta several years ago. I introduced myself as a child advocate and we ended up talking into the early morning at the hotel lounge about how to inspire young people to be open-minded and accepting of others. We also talked about growing up in Alabama (which we have in common), his work on McGovern's '72 presidential campaign, the civil rights movement, and a topic that eventually comes up among all Alabamans: football.

By the time all the martinis were drunk, Morris and I had solved all the problems of the world (and boldly predicted a national championship for the Crimson Tide next season).

I probably learned more from Morris that one evening than I did from all my college professors combined.

Morris' work is as important now as it's ever been. Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by more than 50 percent. The backlash against Obama's election in certain places and the tough economic times create a perfect storm for their continued growth.

Just last year, Morris won a $2.5 million verdict against the leader of the Imperial Klans of America (IKA) and one of his lieutenants for the brutal beating of a teenager in Kentucky. Just days before Morris took the IKA to court, federal agents arrested a member of an IKA splinter group for plotting to assassinate Obama.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service, depend upon the Law Center for up-to-date information about the hate groups. CBS News has reported that the Center has "cracked more cases that even the FBI couldn't solve."

In addition to suing hate groups, the Law Center supplies schools across the country with free educational material through its Teaching Tolerance project. It's a reflection of Morris' belief that it's as important to teach acceptance in the classroom as is it is fight hate in the courtroom. Bill Moyers has called Teaching Tolerance "a bold move into America's classroom to curb the rising tide of racial hatred."

The Center's work isn't limited to tracking and taking down white supremacists. They fight all forms of discrimination and work to protect society's most vulnerable members, handling innovative cases that few lawyers are willing to take.

They recently filed a federal class action law suit to stop the "shockingly inhumane" treatment of children at a juvenile detention center and to force officials to provide sanitary facilities and mental health treatment to young people confined there.

In its recent newsletter, the Center reported that low-income Latino immigrants in the South are routinely the targets of wage theft, racial profiling and other abuses driven by an anti-immigrant climate that harms all Latinos regardless of their immigration status.

Morris and the Southern Poverty Law Center are doing vital work in our nation's courtroom and classrooms. As long as hate groups seek to divide us and as long as their exists vulnerable and disenfranchised groups of people among us, Morris' work will be crucial to our nation's well-being.

Morris and the Law Center never charge their clients any legal fees, and they accept no government money.

I urge you to support them in whatever way you can. Visit the Center's website to learn more: http://www.splcenter.org/

16 April 2009

In Foreign Affairs, Obama Showing Impressive Balance of Strength and Diplomacy during First Few Months in Office

With his handling of the Somali pirate standoff, President Obama quieted detractors bent on misinterpreting his inclination toward diplomacy as a sign of weakness. Instead, he took care of business with measured maturity and quiet resolve. And then graciously doled out credit where it was rightfully due: the Navy Seal sharpshooters who carried out the mission to free Captain Richard Phillips from ransom seekers aboard the Maersk Alabama.

A few months into his administration, themes are emerging when it comes to relations beyond our borders: a sincere desire to treat others with dignity and respect, even with nations whose leaders we may perceive as enemies or potential enemies (there's something to that old saying about keeping your enemies closer); an appreciation for dialogue (can't accomplish much from the sidelines); and a sincere interest in finding common ground upon which to build. All of which is a stark departure from the smug and renegade cowboy patriotism of his predecessor.

But, as a band of cargo buccaneers learned the hard way, if you mess with us, you will pay.

In Turkey, President Obama offered an outstretched hand of friendship to the followers of Islam. And caught a lot of flack from isolationists back home. How ethnocentric and short-sighted, considering a vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving and deplore the violence of Islamic extremists as much as any Christian does.

There are dangerous fringe elements represented in any religion; certainly that includes Christianity. I doubt mainstream Christians want to be judged by radicals who blow up women's clinics or host Klan rallies while quoting Scripture to support their actions.

So why wouldn't we want to make efforts to improve our standing with the billions of peace-loving Muslims around the globe, one-fifth of the world population? You don't do it by draping yourself in an American flag and the kind of junior high school name-calling that so often came out of the White House from (at least) September 11, 2001 until a few months ago.

There’s even some movement toward easing the embargo with Cuba, which is encouraging. I’m not completely sure what 47 years of sanctions have accomplished, really, other than a foot on the neck of the Cuban people and preventing Cuban-Americans from visiting their relatives. It’s exciting to think that we’re actually taking baby steps toward engagement with one of our closest neighbors.

Whether it's North Korea, Iran, Cuba or Republicans across the aisle in Congress, the smart message Obama is sending is this: if it we can't move forward in a positive direction, it won't be for lack of effort on his part. I think that's a fundamental shift in philosophy that will be embraced across the world (even if not by the minority party in Congress).

Is he expecting Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-il or Castro (or Mitch McConnell, for that matter) to all of a sudden start popping by the White House on Saturday afternoons to shoot some hoops with him? Of course not. But his hand has been extended and the onus is now on them to reciprocate. Smart.

Obama insists that the United States can't achieve great objectives on its own, even though it is "always harder to forge true partnerships and sturdy alliances than to act alone," as he put it this month in Strasbourg.

Obama is right, we can’t act alone. The world is inter-dependent as never before in history, whether we like it or not.

Policies and practices of the Bush administration and the current hangers-on are blatantly and dangerously out-of-step with the reality of the new millennium. A new millennium that requires a different kind of leader.

One only has to read the first few chapters of his best-seller, "Dreams from my Father," to understand the influences that shape and define Obama as a man of the world, America’s first international president, and to get a sense that he truly is a different kind of leader. At this point in time, when the world is shrinking and when most of the crises facing the US are global ones: financial, environmental, terrorism, disease… having a leader in place with Obama's depth and global perspective reinforces that he is the right (perhaps only) person for the job.

Just as Kennedy came to define the spirit of the 60's and Reagan the 80's... the new millennium is Obama's zeitgeist to claim.

02 April 2009

Jason -- a Good Example of Failures of Foster Care System

The last time I heard from Jason he was living on the streets and was in trouble. He called me collect from a payphone in the rain a couple years ago. He must have been 26 or 27. I simultaneously listened to his tales of woe and racked my brain for some quick solutions. His roommate had kicked him out of his apartment… he just learned that his mother tested positive for HIV… his probation officer was looking for him… his girlfriend in South Carolina wouldn’t return his phone calls.

Like most calls from Jason, it ended in a fit of rage when I told him that I wouldn’t send him money.

I expect I’ll be getting another similar call from him before too long.

If you are looking for a living, breathing example of how our society fails its children sometimes, Jason is as good as any.

Jason had the misfortune of being born to two profoundly mentally ill parents and living in a home where an older brother sexually assaulted him from time to time. The Department of Social Services got involved when his school attendance became increasingly sporadic in second grade. He entered the foster care system at age nine and never returned home. I met him shortly thereafter and worked with him in a variety of settings for the next few years.

Once when Jason was about 16, I dug through his file in an attempt to determine how many foster homes he had lived. The topic came up because I was astonished to learn from him that he could remember very few details of the places and people of his childhood.

“There was the lady that had the cats,” he said. “I stayed there for a few months.” He couldn’t remember her name or what part of town she lived in or what school he attended at the time or whether he spent Christmas with her.

He had no idea how many foster homes he had lived. I counted 16, but knew there were several more that were lost in the shuffle. The ones where he stayed only a night or two in between runaways or hospitalizations and others that just simply hadn’t been recorded for whatever reason. The number is close to 30, I imagine.

Jason was a good kid. He had a silly grin and an innocence about him that endeared him to most. But he pushed people away when he sensed them getting too close and had a bad habit of destroying property when he was angry. I was on the receiving end of way too many phone calls from exasperated foster parents saying that they were giving up.

At age 18, the system released Jason from its care and he was left to fend for himself. He was, and still is, woefully unprepared to make it in the adult world.

I would like to write that Jason’s case is unusual. It isn’t. For scores of children throughout the US, the very system designed to protect and care for its most vulnerable children isn’t working.

On any given day in the US there are over a half-million children in foster care. Most will eventually be reunited with their parents or placed with relatives. Many others will be adopted by their foster parents. Still, there exists a group of children who are growing up in foster care with no sense of roots or belonging and with no place to go once they turn 18.

Each year approximately 20,000 of these foster children turn 18 and are released from the child protection system. Findings from a recent study on the fate of foster children were dismal: 12-18 months after they left foster care, just half were employed, one-fifth of the girls had given birth, more than one-quarter of the boys had been incarcerated, and more than a quarter of the males had been beaten or otherwise seriously injured to the point of requiring emergency room care.

Other studies indicate that as many as 30-40% of children aging out of foster care will be homeless at some point in their adult lives and that 40-60% of residents at homeless shelters across the country were in foster care as children.

Aged-out foster kids lag far behind their peers when it comes to high school graduation rates and less than 3 percent of former emancipated foster youth over age 25 have earned a college degree (compared to nearly 30 percent in the general population).

Truth of the matter is that a hugely disproportionate number of newly emancipated foster youth will end up incarcerated, institutionalized, homeless, dead.

For many of these children, adoption would provide them with the stability they need to heal and grow. Every child deserves a "forever" family. One that won't go away when he turns 18 or won't give up on him when the going gets tough. Someone to snatch him up and say to him, "I'm just not going to let you fail, you're too valuable."

Even though foster parents play a valuable role in every community and most do a great job, by nature, foster care is a temporary solution. Too often, foster children get bounced from foster home to foster home and live out a childhood fraught with chaos, disruption and despair. Foster homes are often over-crowded and slots are in such demand, the state is more than ready to place another child in the home once one turns 18 and the funding is cut off.

We should demand better. To me, if the State is going to be so bold as to remove a child from his or her birth family because they're incapable of parenting (which it must), then it has a moral obligation to provide the highest level of care for that child in all areas: education, mental health and medical care, vocational training, etc. And permanency planning.

That doesn't always happen. "Minimal standards" has become an acceptable benchmark. But for this population, whose odds for success are so steep to begin with, and for whom the state is acting in loco parentis, we have to do better.

It's not for lack of effort. At the local level, social service administrators and case workers do the best they can and they all want what's best for the children on their case loads. But, they lack resources and funding. The system is overwhelmed.

We need sweeping reform in child welfare, starting with the Title IV-E system, an outdated model which determines the funding states receive for foster care, which is in need of a complete overhaul.

The Pew Charitable Trust has been studying the foster care system for years and has developed a comprehensive set of recommendations for reform that would go a long way toward solving the problem.

You can learn more about these recommendations at http://www.childrenarewaiting.org/.

We certainly need more parents willing to adopt "special needs" children out of foster care -- older kids (not babies) as well as kids with physical, mental, behavioral and educational disabilities and large sibling groups who need to stay together. Up for the challenge? Contact your local Department of Social Services.

And adopting parents need high quality support services from committed adoption agencies willing to work with them for as long as support is needed (not just until the child turns 18). More families would be willing to take on the challenge if they could count on such support.

I think about Jason a lot. And wonder exactly how his life would have been different if he could have been adopted when it first became evident that he couldn’t return to his birth parents. Back then everyone just thought he was too old and had too many problems to be adopted. That’s a tragedy. And one we should never repeat.

What I've learned about kids like Jason is that, just beneath their sometimes abrasive exterior, they're just a scared little boys and girls whose wants and needs are the same as any child’s: mostly someone in their lives who they can count on. Forever. Don’t you think we owe them that much?

20 February 2009

Time is Right for Honest Conversation About Racism in America

Seems like Pandora’s box was opened this week when a political cartoon in the right-leaning New York Post hit the stands. While some suggest Sean Delonas’s cartoon only meant to mock the federal stimulus bill and not compare President Obama to a violent chimp that needed to be gunned down by the (white) police, others saw it as blatantly racist. I’m hoping it wasn’t, that the artist merely had a lapse in judgment and his editor was out sick that day.

Then there was the suggestion by newly appointed Attorney General Eric Holder that Americans are cowards when it comes to dealing with issues of race, which created just as much of a stir.

Here we are, barely a month into the term of the country’s first African-American President and already such heated rhetoric on the topic of race.

Shouldn’t be surprising.

Much ado about nothing? Perhaps. But I think it’s clear that we are a nation bursting at the seams to have real dialogue about race, to which I say: It's about time.

I’m guessing that your reaction to these two news stories varied greatly depending on the color of your skin.

Reminds me of a few years ago when the ABC news program “20/20” accused Nissan and General Motors of participating in lending arrangements with car dealers that resulted in blacks paying higher finance charges than whites on new car loans. In living rooms from Spokane to Baltimore, reaction among most whites watching the show was “surely not,” and among most blacks was, “hmmm… that’s not surprising.”

You see, for whites, it’s easy to be blind to racism. White men like me, in particular, can conceivably live out an entire lifetime without ever having to confront prejudice on a personal level. I have (vicariously) because in the past few years there have been a number of people in my life who experience its pervasive sting on a daily basis – people important enough to me that I’ve taken time to listen to their stories and feel the hurt in their voices as they’ve told them.

Here’s what I think: Certainly there still exists pockets of true bigotry out there, neo-nazis and other hate mongers, boiling over that we have a black president. But for the most part I honestly believe that an overwhelming majority of whites are well-meaning. But incredibly naïve. Naiveté, along with denial and a guilty conscience contributes to a collective avoidance to the subtler forms of racism, which is all around us. White folk just don't see it. 

Several years ago, an organization where I worked was experiencing a fair amount of racial tension. The OJ trial was going on at the time which only added fuel to the fire. OJ demonstrated, as well as anything I’ve ever known, how people can view the same events so differently -- depending on the lenses they're looking through. To its credit, the organization spent a lot of time and money trying to heal its wounds and is stronger still because it did. We spent years going through a variety of cultural awareness and sensitivity programs which opened up lines of communication and opened eyes. And wounds.

During one of the sessions, my black co-workers, one by one, told stories of the kinds of prejudice they encounter on a daily basis: in check out lines, during job interviews, and, yes, while trying to get a new car loan. My white co-workers and I were astonished. Who knew?

One of my co-workers talked about the time she was walking home from elementary school when a white man who didn't particularly take to the idea of her cutting through his yard unleashed his pit bull dog on her. The dog chased her down and bit her several times on the back of her leg. She remembers the man, red-faced, yelling at her, calling her the “n-word” as she looked up at him from the ground. It was a memory so painful that she had blocked it out of her mind all these years, only to have it resurface and come flooding back as we sat in a circle on the floor. As she told the story, her voice quivering, the rest of cried. And I remember, for the very first time, feeling nothing but shame because of the skin that I was wearing.

A friend of mine was recently the plaintiff in a lawsuit against one of Charlotte’s popular department stores. While Christmas shopping with her children she was accused of shoplifting and was harassed by the store manager. He ended up pushing her in the stomach. She was six months pregnant at the time, by the way. She contends that the store makes it a practice to target and harass black customers, and that they even have a code to alert staff that “one of them” has entered the building. A few years ago I would have thought the idea was preposterous. But it seems every black person I know has a story just as shocking, so it doesn’t seem as preposterous to me now. What the store manager didn’t know is that my friend is a very powerful attorney in town and that her husband is one of the more renowned physicians in the region. They could buy the whole store if they wanted to. They messed with the wrong lady.

I do think we’ve come a long ways since “coloreds” had separate water fountains to drink from throughout the south and MLK was leading marches from Selma to Montgomery. The problem is it’s a lot easier to see burning crosses than glass ceilings. You have to look harder to see that institutional racism is alive and well. But it’s only with eyes wide open to the dirty ways of the world that we’ll be able to hold lending institutions accountable, for example. And political cartoonists. 

As well as our elected officials – for the fact that the placement of most toxic waste dumps are in poor (mostly black) neighborhoods or that there is disproportionate levels of lead and toxic air pollution in inner city (mostly black) ghettos or that there is a 6 to 1 black to white ratio of incarcerated juveniles even when the crimes they commit are exactly the same or that 3 out of 4 children admitted to adult prisons are children of color even though most juvenile crimes are committed by white kids… the deplorable conditions of inner city (mostly black) schools, the racial disparity among death row inmates, or that at every turn minorities face barriers and obstacles most whites don't even know exist.

Nowhere is institutional racism more apparent than in the child welfare system where I’ve spent most of my career. 65% of children in foster care are children of color, even though they comprise only 35% of the overall child population. When a family is reported for suspected child abuse or neglect, minority children are more likely than white children to be placed in foster care rather than receive in-home family preservation services – even when the families share the same problems and characteristics. And black children stay in foster care twice as long as white children. Even though blacks are well-represented along the front lines, policy and decision-makers at public and private child welfare agencies tend to be white men.

Gone are the days when blacks had to sit at the back of the bus, thank God. But make no mistake, racism lives on. Even the most naïve whites need to own up to that fact. As long as whites hold the power in this country, which we do (electing a black president doesn’t change that), it will be up to us to take the lead in rectifying the sins of our past and present. 

Most whites would be intolerant of a Klan rally in our community or a noose hanging from a tree in a yard of a black neighbor. We need to be just as intolerant of the less blatant forms of racism going on around us, even though they're much easier to ignore.  

To do so we must first take our heads out of the sand.

The best way I know to begin the process is through individual relationships. Talking and a whole lot of listening. At least that’s how it worked for me. Then comes awareness, empathy, compassion, activism, and (hopefully) change.

But our society will continue to struggle along a racial divide as long as it continues to be segregated (and it is). Separate-ness causes complacency. And myopia. Work places are diverse, but diversity has to extend beyond the job to dinner tables and places of worship and living rooms and bowling alleys and other places where real friendships grow.

Because it’s hard to continue to think in terms of “us” and “them” when “them” includes people that you love.

It's a new day in America; the time is right for an honest conversation about racism.  

13 January 2009

The First Retrospective on the First Decade of the New Millennium

Happy New Year!

Is it just me or is this decade flying by? Seems like only yesterday I was partying like it was 1999. That’s because it was 1999! I keep waiting for some scientist somewhere to confirm my suspicion that the earth actually does spin faster on its axis the older you get.

As the year moves along, I’m sure every blogger in cyberspace will offer up a retrospective on the first decade of the new millennium. I thought I would get mine out of the way early.

What a decade it has been! In your wildest dreams, did you ever think you would pay more than $4 for a gallon of gas? Or that you would seriously consider buying a hybrid?

This decade, there have been more scams and scoundrels than You Tube can keep up with -- Blegojevich and Madoff only notable because of the boldness and sheer audacity of their actions.

Technology exploded. The economy may be going down the drain but, hey, you could download any track Moby ever laid down and have it playing on your iphone in seconds. That’s hot. Facebook redefined how we interact with friends. Michael Jackson got even weirder (and whiter). Many of us barely making minimum wage were convinced that we really could afford that dream home then developed a love/hate/love relationship with our Adjustable Rate Mortgage. Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s home run record.*

Two events on either end of the decade, though, will certainly come to define it: the terrorist attacks on a morning in September toward its beginning and the emergence of a new leader promising transformation as it comes to an end. In between, President Bush proved he was in way over his head and by the end of the decade was among the most unpopular presidents ever.

In many ways, the country is still reeling from 9/11. Everything changed that day. In all fairness to Bush, what an ominous crisis with which to be burdened so early in his term.

Still, what we needed from the leader of the free world at that time was wisdom and sound judgment. We got bumbling bravado and incompetence, instead. In the months and years that followed, we squandered enormous amounts of good will from around the globe, incited terrorist activity to unprecedented levels and killed and maimed untold thousands of US and Iraqi soldiers and innocent civilians.

“Mission accomplished,” will undoubtedly be chronicled by historians as one of the more smug and irresponsible statements of the decade.

Osama Bin Laden still roams free and we the people have blood on our hands.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit ballooned. This president created more debt than the previous 42 combined. The country’s infrastructure continued to corrode and the gains we made affecting dozens of social problems in the 90’s (gun violence, teen pregnancy, delinquency, etc.), predictably, took a nose dive this decade due to inattention. No Child Left Behind was ill-conceived and the federal government’s response to Katrina was shameful.

Perhaps history will be kinder to President Bush. Perhaps I’m not seeing the forest for the trees. Today, however, it’s hard for me to conjure much sympathy. He was an awful president. Thank God it’s about over.

This decade will surely also be remembered as the decade in which the US free market system collapsed under the weight of its own greed and corruption. A little greed is important in keeping capitalism churning along, I realize. But decades of sleaze, gluttony, power mongering and deception (all while our deregulate-at-all-cost government looked the other way) finally took its toll.

This decade represents capitalism gone amok, the worst face of the free market system, and provided an abundance of propaganda fodder for socialism as a superior system to developing nations around the world. The gap between the richest and the rest of us grew wider as the poorest among us still waited for a little something to trickle down.

Here’s a little something you may remember from Sunday School: love of money is the root of all evil. Here's another: you reap what you sow. This is America paying for its sins.

About the economy: Certainly, cyclical downturns and bubble bursts are not uncommon. Markets bend and correct and bounce back. This isn’t the first time the sky was falling. But you have to admit, this time it seems different. Bank mergers, bankruptcies and bailouts dominated the financial news in late ’08.

My bet is that what emerges from the ashes won’t much resemble your father’s America, that this is truly a defining moment in US history – for better or for worse.

Now, comes one charismatic young man named Barrack Obama, representing change and hope at a time when both are desperately needed. Smart children everywhere now know that they, too, can someday be president.

For people my age, Obama is the first president who seems like one of us, someone we would have stayed up late hanging out with in college -- drinking “Pepsis” and debating politics while The Smiths blared from a boom box in the corner of the dorm room.

For America, whose not so distant legacy includes lynch mobbings and governors in University doorways barring "coloreds" from entering in, Obama's win is in and of itself a sign of change and hope, even before he ever sets foot in the Oval Office.

What we know about President-elect Obama is that he's intelligent, articulate, inspiring, charming and energetic. What we don't know yet is whether the policies he sets forth in the coming months to fix dozens of messes inherited from his predecessor will be effective. But we should have some idea by the time the decade is over. If he can successfully lead us out of this economic quagmire, restore some respect and credibility in the international community, and begin to impact some of the tremendous problems on the home front, then the decade will end on a positive note and the next one will start off with great promise.

But that’s a tall order. If he can accomplish just half of what he’s outlined during his tenure, then there should be a big rock in South Dakota reserved for his likeness.

For me, this decade has been equally eventful. On October 25, 2000, I showed up at the doorstep of a beautiful young woman who rocked my world. We got married, had two beautiful children together, moved to California (and back). We bought a house near San Francisco during a seller’s market and tried to sell it just as the housing market collapsed. Note: anyone interested in a beautifully remodeled art deco home halfway between SF and Napa Valley, please give me a call.

Also this decade: my father died, I started a couple nonprofits, changed jobs more time than I’d like to admit, took trips to both Alaska and Hawaii for my fortieth birthday and then wrote a book about taking a trip to the moon with my oldest daughter. This year, I’ll be working on launching an exciting new children’s law center in Raleigh. Whew. I crammed in a lot in ten little years.

To be honest, I’m ready to dig in. Get settled. Relax a little.

As for the country, I’m hoping for nothing more than a return to normalcy. I’d settle for another decade like the 90’s, which seems downright boring in comparison.

Then, I'd like some help figuring out a way to stop the earth from spinning so fast!