Where are our principles?

As terrible events are playing out in a neighboring state, we must ask if we can afford not to take care of people who need our help

MARLBORO — I have been watching the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and trying to comprehend how society has become completely unsafe for our children. Since our mental health and developmental services system have been undergoing major systems changes, I'm sharing some of my thoughts about Vermont's future, which I sent as a letter to Governor Peter Shumlin.

As a community-based social worker for 25 years and for the past 13 years director of a specialized service agency, I have worked closely with hundreds of families who are struggling with a child with a mental illness or a disability.

I have noticed, over time, a steady decrease in services that are available for children - most notably, in special education - but also in agency programming.

Most families come into services at a crisis point. Prevention and outreach are nonexistent. Individualized Education Program and Coordinated Service Plan meetings - mandated under federal law for students with disabilities - are often uncomfortable, even excruciating, as service providers do not have enough funding to meet the needs presented.

A child under the age of 19 who has a developmental disability can receive a Medicaid (Developmental Services) waiver only if there are repeated hospitalizations or the child is in the custody of the Department for Children and Families (DCF).

We are a reactive system and, unfortunately, our recent conversations about upcoming changes promise more of the same.

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As a lifelong and generational Democrat, I am disheartened by both the national and state dialogue about caring for the most vulnerable. More and more, this issue is discussed only in terms of what it costs, not by what people need.

My Democratic heroes are Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. During the Depression, President Roosevelt sent the First Lady to institutions and Civilian Conservation Corps camps (places that received federal funding).

She went to as many of these places as possible, not only to ensure that no fraud was taking place, but also to see that people were being treated humanely.

Mrs. Roosevelt insisted on talking with patients and participants directly, as she felt that doing so was the only way to really know what was happening.

There is footage of Bobby Kennedy campaigning for president in Mississippi. He sees African-American children with distended bellies. He looks at the camera, tearing up, and says, “We must do something about this.” Senator Kennedy went back to Washington and started the legislation that would become the food-stamp program.

And LBJ started, but could not finish, the war on poverty.

One of my social-work professors was just beginning his career at this time, and he was given a job to walk through neighborhoods in New York City to find out what people needed, one conversation at a time. Funding was available to start the community programs that were identified by the people he met.

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Although Barack Obama won the election, there has been almost no national dialogue on the needs of children and adults who live with mental illness, who live with a disability, or who live in poverty.

The Democratic Party has minimized what was once considered its most cherished principle: that government has a responsibility to provide funding and programming for the most vulnerable.

The language has changed over 25 years. Increasingly, we now use corporate-speak in human services - “productivity,” “utilization review,” “efficiencies” - instead of common sense conversation about what would help.

While I believe that we should use research-informed best practices, we must also not forget that there are real people behind the numbers. Qualitative data, which is essentially what Eleanor Roosevelt assembled, is just as statistically viable as quantitative data.

In essence, the Republican Party has effectively directed the discourse in that we now all believe that we cannot afford human-service programming.

But as terrible events are playing out in our neighboring state, we must ask if we can afford not to take care of people who need our help.

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I know that elementary schools around Vermont are all trying to reassure parents that there are security protocols in place and that their children are safe.

But the most significant safety measure we can take is to make sure we are providing excellent and easy-to-access services for children and adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

We need to increase our collective knowledge about mental health and decrease stigma about asking for help.

We need community members to know whom to call when they are worried about an individual or a family, and we must make sure that staff who work on the front line are adequately trained and compensated for their vital work.

I am willing to assist the governor and his staff at the Agency of Health and Human Services in any way that I can, as we all strive to make a safe future for Vermont children.

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