Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Politics of Fear

Sorry to offer two "news stories" in the same morning, but this little bit of fear mongering demanded a response.

My first job in Louisville, and my last job before entering professional ministry, was as a 3rd Shift Residential Counsellor at Brooklawn Youth Services (now called Brooklawn Child and Family Services), a home for abused boys. The thirteen months that I worked there are among the most difficult of my life. I worked from midnight to 8 am, watching over the boys as they slept, cleaning the facilities, summarizing and filing paperwork, cooking breakfast, and walking the boys through their morning routine. I slept only 3 to 4 hours a day during the week, catching up on my sleep by sleeping 20 or so consecutive hours on my days off.

But it was also a great time. I moved to Louisville to live closer to Sami - we started officially dating right after I moved, though we saw each other a great deal before the move - and to be nearer to the church where I first started working with teenagers. One of my closest friends was a Youth Minister, and he talked me into helping him out on the weekends. I was a rail-thin 21 year old, with wild red hair and a goatee, looking just like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. In fact, that Youth Group called me Shaggy, and called the big red van that I drove there every weekend the Mystery Machine.

I loved working with the boys at Brooklawn. While they had a great many issues, they were also endearing. They often felt powerless, out of control of their lives, moved around by powerful adults who couldn't always be trusted. But they rewarded the time and effort that you invested in them, especially if you listened to them like they might actually have something worth saying. I started reading the Harry Potter novels because it gave me something to talk to them about, something to share with them.

My last job at Brooklawn was in a Group Home just off the main campus, in a house along Goldsmith Lane, the main street that ran through the neighborhood. The boys in that house had all made tremendous strides in their lives. They had each been in some way abused. Most of them had been removed from their homes and placed in the care of the state. Many of them were looking for foster placements, or better still, adoptive families. They had all gone through several levels of the Brooklawn program, earning more freedom and responsibility. Most had been successfully transitioned from Brooklawn's campus school to the local public schools, and many of them were starting to succeed in school, taking pride in their accomplishments. They were breaking a terrible cycle.

Most abusers were abused themselves, and many people who were abused as children grow up to abuse others. It is a learned behavior that is terribly difficult to unlearn. Violence is a kind of language, a form of communication that is used when more constructive communications fail or break down. For the abused, it is their native language, taught to them by their parents. Brooklawn taught many of the boys that I worked with a new language to replace their earlier maladaptive one. These boys learned how to express themselves constructively and creatively. I was proud to work with them.

The link at the top of this post is to an article in this morning's Louisville Courier Journal, detailing the political battle over a proposed expansion of Brooklawn's services. Brooklawn owns property off Newburg Road, and would like to turn it into a Group Home for 16 to 18 year old boys who have completed their treatment at Brooklawn but have nowhere to go. It would be a kind of transitional housing, designed to help the kids move back into the community and either find jobs or go to college. It is one of the boldest proposals I have seen, and solves a real problem that I noticed while I worked at Brooklawn.

So many kids who move from residential treatment programs back into the world at large find themselves unable to cope, and eventually wind up back in the residential treatment program. Often when they leave campus they are put either right back into the violent situation that they left, or into a placement that can be unwilling or unable to meet their unique needs. In many cases they simply have nowhere to go, and are bounced from foster home to foster home.

The proposed expansion of Brooklawn's services may well address this critical hole in the system, giving kids a safe place to live in their transition back into the broader community, and surrounding them with others who have been through what they've been through, and can act as an understanding support group.

My Metro Councilman, Democrat Jim King, doesn't see it this way. He has characterized the children who might live in this Group Home as "psychotic," and as potential sex offenders. He has also threatened a rhetorical "nuclear war" if Brooklawn doesn't drop their proposal. He is using his clout, and a politics of fear, to try to bully a venerable institution into dropping an excellent treatment program, and the only motive I can see is greed. He owns property near the proposed Group Home, and is afraid that it might harm his property value.

To the substance of King's claims, I must simply say that they have no correspondence to reality. First off, the children in the group home would be supervised by Brooklawn staff, so this is hardly the Lord of the Flies scenario that he is describing to inflame the community. Secondly, the children are by no means "psychotic." Yes, Brooklawn's main campus does have a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Program, but that is totally separate from the Group Home. And, as for the potential for violence and sex crimes, King overlooks that Brooklawn already operates Group Homes in another neighborhood, and there have been no such problems in those homes. There is no reason to think this new home would be any different, especially as the older Group Homes have children still undergoing treatment, while the new home is designed for older boys who have already completed their treatment.

But what sickens me more than King's opposition to the proposed Group Home is the spiteful spirit behind it, as manifest in his words and actions. He has actively worked against other local lawmakers who have fought to restore $2,000,000 of state funding that was cut from Brooklawn, failing to appreciate the valuable service provided by those who treat abused children. Such pitiful short-sightedness fails to recognize that it is in our communities best interests to treat abused and neglected boys while they are still young, breaking the cycle of abuse, neglect, and violent crime.

King attacks those with mental health needs with the same vitriol, the same politics of fear, that are used by the religious right against gays and lesbians. Demonizing the "other" may be a great way to get the fearful and reactionary vote, but it is a lousy way to govern. In emails to supporters he has vowed to "make every effort to impede Brooklawn's success," and has characterized the children there as "very capable of committing a sex crime against your wife and children." Such fear mongering has no place in public discourse, and those who engage in it are not fit to serve.

King has called for a protest on Brooklawn's campus, prompting Brooklawn's director, David Graves, to say, "To me, it's cruel to think children who've already been rejected time and time again would be subject to a group of people coming on campus and telling them they're not wanted."

King's bullying tactics have led fellow Metro Council Representative Tom Burch to say, "Who in their right mind in politics would attack children who have been abused?"

Both of these comments are, if anything, understated. I've voted for Jim King in the past two elections. I'll never make that mistake again. May he soon find himself out of work.

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