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?