Category Archives: politics
Content warning: This post contains discussions about abuse of people with disabilities, including physical assault and the use of restraints.
Last week, a major civil rights lawsuit was settled in Pennsylvania when seven families agreed to accept five million United States Dollars to resolve a case they filed against a teacher and her superiors, arguing that she abused the students in her care and her superiors did not take adequate steps to address it. It is the largest case of its kind in history in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in US history. The teacher has already served six weeks for reckless endangerment; the question here isn’t whether she abused her students or not, but why the district failed to do anything about it.
These students were in elementary school. They were restrained to chairs using duct tape and bungee cords. The teacher stomped on the insoles of their feet, slapped them, pinched them, and pulled their hair. These nonverbal students apparently weren’t provided with communication tools that they could have used to report to their parents, which meant that the teacher was free to lie about the source of the injuries these children experienced while in her classroom. Horrified aides in the classroom reported it, and the teacher was simply reassigned.
The teacher’s defense was that she didn’t have training or support. This may well have been true. However, if that was the case, she should have recused herself from that classroom. Aides confronted her about her classroom behaviour and she said she ‘didn’t know how to stop.’ I’d say that asking to be taken out of that classroom would have been a pretty fucking good way to stop. If the defense to that is ‘well, it would have ended her teaching career,’ then may I suggest that a person who physically abuses children is not fit to be a teacher? That a person who feels that stomping on the insoles of a child’s feet is an appropriate method of ‘discipline’ is clearly not someone who should be in charge of a classroom?
‘We weren’t sure how a jury would view these facts, especially since children were involved,’ an attorney for the defense said, which is a polite way of saying ‘we are well aware that if this case had gone to trial we probably would have paid more than five million.’ The funds are being put in trust for the children, who, among other things, are in need of therapy.
There have been ‘hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on schoolchildren during the past two decades.’ The House of Representatives actually recently passed a bill addressing this issue, responding to a report from the General Accounting Office documenting abuse of school children across the United States.
The restraint of children with disabilities in school is, unfortunately, not at all notable. It’s a widespread and common practice and I see stories about it in the news practically every week. I’m sure a perusal through the recommended reading archives here would turn up several examples. This doesn’t make it any less vile or wildly inappropriate. I am heartened that legislation has been passed to address the issue, but outlawing abuse isn’t enough, and it’s clear that better training, accountability, and transparency are needed. The reports of those aides shouldn’t have been ignored. That district should not have reassigned the teacher to another classroom.
What is remarkable, and important to note, is that it takes a lot of money to take a case like this to court. Which means that settlements of this kind are only really available to families with at least some money. Even with lawyers willing to volunteer time, taking a case through the courts requires time, energy, the ability to pull supporting materials together, and patience. These things are not options for all families. Especially for parents with disabilities, the barriers to getting to court can be an obstacle so significant that even if they want to fight for their children, they might find it impossible to take a case to court.
Access to justice should not be dictated by social status and economic class, but it often is.
We shouldn’t have to pass laws saying it’s not ok to duct tape children to chairs, but we do.
Call to Action: Tell Parliament to Stop Discrimination against people with disabilities who immigrate to Canada
An awesome way to guarantee that you will not be allowed to immigrate to most countries – even if you otherwise completely qualify – is to have a disability, or have a disabled immediate family member.
Despite the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly guaranteeing that laws in Canada cannot be written to discriminate against people with “mental or physical disabilities” (Section 15 of the Charter), Canada’s Immigration Act allows someone who otherwise passes all of Canada’s immigration requirements to be denied immigration because they “might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services”.
What has this meant in practice? Well, in 2009 Chris Mason, an immigrant from the UK who was injured on the job while working legally in Canada, was deported back to the UK because of his disability. In 2010, Ricardo Companioni was initially denied immigration to Canada from the US because of his HIV-positive status, but managed to argue in Federal court that he and his partner would pay for their drug treatments and thus not be part of Canada’s care system – a solution that is not available to many people. In May, the Barlagne family lost their appeal to be allowed to stay in Canada, as their youngest daughter has Cerebral Palsy. The reasoning was that the court did not believe the Barlagnes would be able to pay for their daughter’s care.
None of these stories are unique. Even when the Bill was being debated in Parliament, Members were bringing up concerns about how the “excessive demand clause” would affect people whose families had disabilities. In 2000, when Wendy Lill, a Member of Parliament, asked:
We have a charter of rights which talks about each Canadian being entitled to equality under the law. The Will to Act Task Force, which was established several years ago, talked about equality of citizenship for persons with disabilities.
Clause 34 talks about how a foreign national or other permanent resident would be inadmissible on health grounds if their health condition might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services. This is the only clause in the bill which seems to me would in any way relate to a person with a disability making an application to come to Canada.
I would like to know if a family with a child who has a disability such as Down syndrome or cerebral palsy would be accepted in this country. [emphasis added]
She was assured by the then-in-power Liberals that:
I think it is internationally accepted, in the Geneva convention and other statutes, that the best interests of the child can indeed be defined. In the case of a disabled child, I believe that the intent is to prevent abuse. The abuse might be that the only reason for someone wanting to come to Canada would be to seek free health care of some type.
However, in the case of family reunification, if we are talking about bringing a new family to Canada, if a child has a disability, frankly, I am absolutely confident, having met the men and women who work in citizenship and immigration, that we would take all of that into account and we would not allow it to stand in the way. [emphasis added]
I’m very happy for the no-longer-in-power Liberals that they were certain situations like the Barlagnes would never happen in Totally-Awesome-To-People-With-Disabilities Canada, but since we live in this Canada, I think their optimism was misguided. As has been amply demonstrated by reality.
The Council of Canadians with Disabilities has recently written yet-another-letter urging the Hon. Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration, to review the “excessive demand clause”. You can read the letter in full at their website.
I have adapted their letter to send to Mr Kenney, as well as my MP, and provide that letter for my fellow Canadians to adapt or use in any way they see fit.
This is a discriminatory policy. People with disabilities and their families are not drains on the Canadian economy. We are people, and we should not be denied equal rights because of our disabilities.
The University of California, Berkeley recently released a report discussing the incarceration of youth with mental illness. Mental Health Issues in California’s Juvenile Justice System (.pdf) examines juvenile detention in California and the ways that it is falling woefully short in terms of providing adequate mental health services to incarcerated juveniles. Unsurprisingly, it is getting very limited attention in the media because it contains a trifecta of things society doesn’t want to address: rising incarceration rates, youth, and mental illness.
We cannot examine this study without considering the larger context of juvenile incarceration in the United States as a whole. The US incarcerates more youth than any other country in the world, in a prison-industrial complex that happens to be a major moneymaker for thousands of private prisons run with minimal accountability. The ‘justice’ system in the United States is deeply flawed, with stark racial and class disparities, including for incarcerated youth. Numerous regions claim to be ‘tough on youth crime’ and as with other ‘tough on crime’ initiatives, nonwhite juveniles are far more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned. White juveniles, when they do enter the legal system, are offered far more alternatives.
‘Tough on youth crime’ results in life in prison for teens. Like other residents of the prison system, incarcerated youth are at risk for sexual assault, rape, and physical violence. They lack access to adequate health care. Despite the fact that we have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide health services to the people we incarcerate ‘for the public good,’ prisoners are routinely denied access to their medications (content warning, this prisoner died of complications from an eating disorder), life saving medical treatments, and even the most basic of health care.
Juveniles are held in overcrowded prison environments that expose them to the risk of violence, infectious disease, and stress-related mental illness. Thanks to prison crowding and ‘tough on crime’ laws, some juveniles end up being held in adult facilities. Youths housed with adults are at increased risk of assault. They are also more likely to attempt suicide. Our prisons, for the most part, are no place for human beings, no matter what those human beings may have done, and the disparities in our justice system mean that there is no guarantee that we are incarcerating the right person for the crime.
We have too many juveniles in prison. The justice system in the United States imprisons too many people in general, with few explorations of alternatives to incarceration. ‘Justice’ plays out along racial and class boundaries and this is impossible to ignore. We cannot talk about the problems with prisoner care without talking about why and how people are incarcerated in the first place, and exploring the social attitudes that play a huge role in the construction of our justice system.
There are several problems going on with the incarceration of mentally ill youth. The first is that because community support services are limited, many youth who do not belong in prison at all are being incarcerated for ‘behaviour problems.’ Mentally ill children are not provided with support and end up being institutionalised on involuntary psychiatric holds, while their parents are told that if they want help, they should call the police (content warning, problematic framing). As a society, the United States is using the juvenile justice system as a mental health treatment program.
Who is least likely to have access to services, support, and the funds to provide adequate mental health treatment? People in poverty and nonwhite folks. Parents with disabilities caring for their mentally ill children. A vicious cycle is created where people with nowhere to turn go to the option of last resort and it ends with youth in prison because they are mentally ill. Not because they have committed crimes. Because they have mental illnesses (h/t MsFeasance for this link!). The Berkeley report shows, though, that once those youth arrive in prison, they are not provided with the mental health services that they need.
Incarcerated mentally ill youth often do not receive mental health treatment in prison. Screening of incarcerated youth is inadequate and spotty. Diagnoses are missed or disputed. Youth who have diagnoses aren’t provided with medications, therapy, and other treatments. Other youth are psychiatrised and subjected to abusive ‘treatment.’ Meanwhile, California is slashing its budget and although prison spending is one of the few areas of the budget that is increasing, that spending isn’t improving health care in prisons. It’s going to the construction of new facilities and into the pockets of prison administrators and private companies that make prison contracting a big business.
The report puts forward a number of suggestions for improving mental health services within the prison system, including establishing diversion programs to provide juvenile offenders with community-based treatment options. It also recommends taking some steps to keep mentally ill youth out of prison in the first place, by improving support and outreach so that the prison system stops being used as a dumping ground. In order to get mentally ill youth out of prisons, we need to change our attitudes as a society about mental illness and about incarceration; jails and prisons need to stop being regarded as holding facilities for people who are socially undesirable.
Lack of access to treatment and services for incarcerated youth is a symptom of a larger problem. It’s a symptom of the way mental illness in general is addressed by our society, of how we think about funding and budgeting priorities, of how we think about youth themselves.
abby jean posted a link this morning on her Tumblr, putting the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in perspective. While this oil disaster is attracting a great deal of attention in the United States right now thanks to BP’s foot-dragging and prevarications, there isn’t much coverage in the United States on the situation in Nigeria, and there hasn’t been, and there isn’t likely to be. Nigeria holds an estimated three percent of global oil reserves, in the form of highly desirable light sweet crude. As a result, it’s been heavily exploited. Nigeria’s oil infrastructure is not keeping pace with the rate of drilling, however, and as a result, the equivalent of an Exxon-Valdez1 is spilled every year in Nigeria.
The situation in Nigeria is a complicated one. In a nutshell, the government nationalised large portions of the oil reserves once it realised their value. Oil wealth quickly became concentrated in the hands of Nigeria’s most powerful as a result of corruption2, and this angered ethnic minorities such as the Ogoni and Ijaw, who argue that their lands have been taken from them and polluted and they are seeing none of the benefits. These groups began protesting, protesting turned to violence, and, recently, a negotiated amnesty fell apart.
Nigeria is heavily dependent on oil. 95% of the country’s export earnings are from the sale of oil. So are 85% of government revenues. There are some very high stakes here. People talk about ‘oil economies’ and in the case of Nigeria, this is literal. The heavy reliance on oil turns into big profits for officials in the right places, as well as the numerous heavy players in the oil industry who are involved in Nigeria.
Helpfully, most of the news articles I see on Nigeria focus on the potential problems the United States might expect if oil production in Nigeria is cut as a result of violence. Because, clearly, this is the most important priority; who cares about the environment, who cares about poverty, who cares about state-sponsored violence, who cares about our complicity. Let’s focus on whether or not we will be able to import adequate supplies of oil from Nigeria. In 2009, the US military invested $310 million United States Dollars in ‘security’ in oil-rich regions of Africa. To ‘protect our interests.’
It is Nigeria’s most vulnerable who pay the high price for the oil industry in Nigeria. Many communities in regions where oil is drilled are living in poverty. Infrastructure like roads, clinics, electricity, and schools is thin on the ground. Meanwhile, pollution ruins crops and destroys fish stocks. Communities wait for days for oil personnel to respond when leaks occur. Sometimes, leaks develop and impoverished people swarm the section of broken pipe to collect oil. There are explosions and deaths. Respiratory diseases and malnutrition occur at extremely high rates in oil-affected communities.
Reprisals for outspoken communities can be swift and devastating. Communities suspected of harboring militants are burned to the ground. Oil companies are also involved. Attempts to run critical ad campaigns in the mainstream media have been rebuffed; the ‘Shame Shell’ Campaign, for example, was recently refused by the Financial Times. Consequently, many people are not aware of the situation in Nigeria, let alone their own involvement; citizens in nations with high oil consumption, like the United States, don’t realise the not-so-hidden costs of the petrol they use to fill their cars.
Nigeria ranks 158 on the Human Development Index. When oil was initially discovered in Nigeria, there were hopes that it could be turned into a model nation where profits from oil were distributed throughout the population and everyone benefited from the country’s oil reserves. This is not what happened. Instead, Nigeria has been saddled with environmental pollution, an increasing poverty rate, violence, and extremely high political corruption even as it, on the surface, rakes in substantial profits every year. Those profits stay firmly at the top of the social and political power structure, though, instead of providing real benefits to communities.
Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP, a company with a lengthy history of environmental and human rights violations, claims that it will be paying for the costs of the Deepwater Horizon incident. The media is filled with haunting images. Oiled birds. Slicks of oil on the water. Dead sea turtles washing up on beaches. Nigeria, where sustained environmental damage has been occurring for decades, is a nonentity for the US media unless it comes to grim warnings that ‘ethnic violence’ might disrupt our oil supplies.
Human rights are a social justice issue. Environmental devastation is a social justice issue. Exploitation of oil reserves, by extension, is a social justice issue because of the astoundingly abusive and corrupt practices heavily tied in with the oil industry. You should know about what is happening in Nigeria and many other oil-rich nations, where the most vulnerable are hung out to dry while the most powerful profit.
And you should be angry about it.
- This 1989 oil spill in the Prince William Sound in Alaska resulted in the release of 250,000 barrels of oil. It became a cause celebre of the environmental movement, and much to the infuriation of Exxon, it’s often used as a unit of measurement for oil spills to put things into context for the public. ↩
- It is estimated that as much as 70% of oil revenues is ‘lost.’ ↩