Category Archives: news

Child abuse, excessive caseloads, and Monroe County’s CPS

What happens when you call the CPS hotline. http://www.dorightbykids.org/.

The first part of the process when you call the CPS hotline.
http://www.dorightbykids.org/.

You know I rarely go on a public political rant, and I apologize for what I’m about to say, but I call bullshit on Monroe County’s Commissioner of Human Services, Corinda Crossdale.

Bull. Shit.

A little background: in November 2016, three-year-old Brook Stagles died from injuries suffered as a result of severe child abuse. Her injuries were so severe, according to news reports, that doctors in the emergency room at first thought she’d been hit by a car. Her father, Michael Stagles, was charged with criminally negligent homicide, and his girlfriend, Erica Bell, was charged with 2nd degree murder and 1st degree manslaughter.

The abusive situation had been reported to Monroe County Child Protective Services, but Brook’s grandfather, John Geer, believes the case slipped through the cracks due to a county department that is severely overburdened. Since Brook’s death, he has been outspoken in his criticism of the excessive caseloads CPS workers are carrying in the hopes that no other child has to suffer the same fate as his granddaughter.

Last week, local news station WHEC did a report on CPS caseloads, revealing that some caseworkers carry as many as 30 to 40 cases, far above the 12 cases recommended by experts like the Child Welfare League of America. Last night, 13WHAM did their own report, with similar findings.

The problem? While John Rabish, who sits on the board of the Federation of Social Workers, the union which represents social workers, says Monroe County’s CPS is in crisis, the Commissioner of Human Services in Monroe County disagrees.

In this 13WHAM investigation, Corinda Crossdale says: “I do not think we can make the assumption that every single case that our caseworkers work with are extraordinarily complicated.” In the WHEC story, she referred to some cases as “cases simply where the family needs help connecting to resources”.

I’m not privy to details about the inner workings of CPS. But I did work for a day care, and we were trained on what to do if we suspected any of our children were experiencing abuse or neglect. There’s a confidential number to call, which immediately begins an investigation. It’s no joke, every call is taken seriously, and even if the report turns out to be unfounded, a thorough investigation  has been set into motion.

cps-investigates-image

The process when CPS investigates a report. From the website http://www.dorightbykids.org/.

According to the county website, state law requires that an investigation “must start within 24 hours of the report, but often starts immediately.” A caseworker is sent to visit the family and talk to everyone involved – parents, extended family, mandated reporters like teachers or day care workers, whoever might have information regarding the situation. If the danger is imminent, action is taken right away. Whether the child stays in the home or not, the investigation continues. There are reports to be written, and court dates to appear at, and meetings to attend, hours and days spent investigating and evaluating and addressing the situation.

Take a moment to imagine the man hours it takes for one person to do this for 20 or 30 or 40 families simultaneously, and you realize very quickly that there are no  uncomplicated cases – “extraordinarily” or otherwise – when a child’s life and health and safety is on the line.

Or you can think about it this way. In 2010, the most recent year statistics were shared on the county website, 7,904 cases of abuse and neglect were reported in Monroe County. That was 21 new reports a day, 365 days a year. And even if a significant number of those cases were unfounded, due diligence needed to be done on each one to ensure that a child’s safety and well being are not in jeopardy.

And while Crossdale does compliment her employees as being “very resilient, very capable caseworkers”, she discounts the fact that they are also very human, and that there are only so many hours in a day for a caseworker to actually do the work, and that overwork on top of the daily exposure to abuse, neglect, and dangerous situations takes a toll on a caseworker’s own health and well being and family life.

Brook Stagles paid the ultimate price for the current situation CPS employees are facing, and kudos to John Geer for speaking out on her behalf, and on behalf of the overburdened, exhausted, defeated employees whose complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe Brook’s voice, crying from the grave, will be the needed catalyst for change.

Because if Crossdale doesn’t stop trying to justify the obvious problems her department has, more children may suffer the same fate – and their blood will be on her hands.

End of rant. For the moment.

Related links:

Save

Save

Musing on pregnancy, abortion, and becoming a human

(This post originally ran on my blog at Patheos in July 2016)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

I was listening to the radio yesterday, something I don’t usually do, addicted as I am to podcasts like “RadioLab” and “Welcome to Nightvale.” But a local talk show was on, and I left it on, because when I do listen to talk radio I make sure to listen to both conservative and liberal perspectives. I like to hear many sides of an issue as I ponder where I stand on it and how my decisions affect other people.

Anyway, this local host was talking to her guest about abortion and she made a comment that I can’t get out of my head. She said that there is only one point in time when two humans occupy the same body – pregnancy – and that if we’ve made a decision that one of those humans is dispensable it’s because we’ve made a decision that one of those lives is more valuable than the other.

Which is kind of a stumbling block to abortion when you’re of the mindset that all lives matter.

Yes, I understand that her comments are rooted in the belief that an unborn baby is a human at the moment of conception vs. a bunch of cells that may one day become a human but aren’t yet.

But there’s a fact about pregnancy that we all can agree on: at some point, two humans occupy the same body.

If you think about it, it’s like something from a science fiction story. Baby, in the womb of the mother, growing, developing, feeding, moving, kicking the woman in the ribs until her chest is numb. And then one day, it escapes from its host in an explosion of blood and fluids, gasping its first breath before going on to live and thrive and generally forget the host that facilitated its life until it needs an advance on its allowance.

But the magic! The miracle! A human inside of another human! A human, who will be born and become an intellectual, thinking, reasoning person, with ideas and thoughts and opinions, whose presence in the world will leave it changed forever, for better or worse.

Even more amazing, we all grew inside the womb of another human. All of us! Me! You! One minute we were nothing, and the next we were human, and regardless of at what point in a pregnancy you believe that happened, it happened inside the body of another human.

Have you ever thought about yourself in that way? Have you ever considered your own mother that way? Not just as the person who cooked and did laundry and told you to clean your room, but as a creature who literally allowed her body to be the incubator so you could eventually become you?

I really don’t have a point to make in this post. I’ve just been musing, as I often do, on the miracle of pregnancy and the alien-like way we make our way into this world, when the rules of time and space are suspended, allowing two living beings to occupy the same space at the same time.

Maybe I’m just giving you a chance to look at things from another perspective.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #32 Nothing but the truth (but whose truth?)

I often read Young Adult books, because I like to see how authors are dealing with difficult topics in a way that young people can understand them.

In this election cycle, I’m reminded of the YA novel “Nothing But The Truth”, by Avi. I read it years ago, and have reread it several times, because it’s an excellent portrayal of how what we see on the evening news – or, with the advent of social media, online – is only a snippet of the truth. And how that truth is filtered and distilled down through the eyes of each person involved in the process of telling the story.

Here’s the premise of the “documentary novel”: Phillip Malloy is a ninth grade student. During the morning announcements, the school has a policy that all students must stand and remain silent during the playing of the National Anthem. Phillip, however, happens to be in a homeroom with a teacher who not only tolerates tomfoolery, he joins in it himself. So Phillip talks and does homework while the teacher cracks jokes. But when the school reassigns all students to new homerooms, Phillip finds himself in Mrs. Narwin’s homeroom. She also happens to be Phillip’s English teacher. And Mrs. Narwin takes the rule of silence during the National Anthem very seriously.

Phillip continues to play the class clown and hums along with the National Anthem in his new homeroom. The more Mrs. Narwin asks for silence, the more Phillip acts up, until she sends him to the principal’s office.

What follows next is a domino effect of events: suspension from school, a civil rights lawyer, national news. It’s a game of telephone, with lives and careers at stake.

What’s so brilliant about this book is that it’s told in transcript style, so readers see the actual conversations between teacher and student, parents and child, parents and local politician, politician and local journalist. There are letters from the teacher to her sister, newspaper clippings, memos from the school board to the teachers in the district. It allows the reader to see the motives behind all of the participants: a dedicated teacher who loves her students and doesn’t want this one punished (she just wants him to stop humming during the National Anthem); a student who knows he’s being a smart ass but doesn’t want to get in trouble at home (because there are bigger issues going on here, including parents expectations at odds with a child’s wants and needs); parents and politicians with their own agendas (and not always with the child’s best interests at heart); a school board on the eve of a budget vote (and dollars often take precedence over people); a journalist with her own goals (and an inability to get the facts right); a conservative talk show host charged with stirring up controversy (and ratings).

The reader gets to see how a complex situation gets boiled down to a headline or sound bite, until a teacher is ruined, parents are vindicated, a politician is elected, and a student is left to navigate the turmoil it all leaves behind.

It’s fiction…or is it? The book was published in 1991, but the premise – the way the story is manipulated, the way the public reacts to a news story without knowing any of the real story – happens every hour of every day. And with social media, every second of every minute of every hour.

This short fiction book – you can read it in a few hours – will remind you that behind every headline is a whole story, and behind every story are real people, with real lives, and that what we pass around as truth is really nothing more than rumor.

Go read it. Now. Before you spout off on social media or forward a story you haven’t actually verified or make a judgement based on a three minute news story that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story…and ruin relationships and friendships in the process. It’s an important lesson to learn in this emotionally charged election year.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

Save

Save

Save

Animals, humans, and Yellowstone National Park

photo courtesy of pixabay.com

photo courtesy of pixabay.com

In the wake of the story about a three-year-old who breached the barrier at the Cincinnati Zoo last weekend, resulting in the euthanization of a 17-year-old west lowland gorilla named Harambe, a video surfaced this week of a woman at Yellowstone National Park being butted by an elk after she tried to take a photo and got too close for comfort.

It’s one of several recent stories highlighting the problem of adult humans – grown ups who should know better – interfering with the wildlife. Like this lady, who walked up to a massive bison and started petting it like a big dog. I’m not sure what she planned to do if the bison got up, but I suspect the family vacation photos would have taken a decidedly more sinister air.

In 2015, a young girl was injured while posing for a photo near a bison when it “lifted its head, took a couple steps and gored her”. It was just one of several bison attacks last summer. Last week, the Montana Standard wrote about a woman who got out of a car to take a photo of a mother bear and her cubs, not realizing – or, more likely, not caring – that a mama bear protecting her babies is one mean mother.

Or maybe they’re all vying for a Darwin Award.

Not everyone who interferes is taking a selfie, but they can cause just as many problems. We all remember a few weeks ago when well-meaning tourists Shamash Kassam and his son Shaquille took a baby bison to the ranger station in an attempt to rescue it, after seeing it struggling to cross a river and then standing alone and shivering on the side of the road, the herd nowhere in sight. The bison was later euthanized by rangers, who claimed the park has no facilities to care for it. That story caused a firestorm across social media that I’m still trying to sort out.

This week Kassam, who is a farmer in Africa and so isn’t completely ignorant about animals, was fined $230 and ordered to make a $500 donation to the park. (Side note: is it still a donation if you’re forced to pay it? Just curious.) He said in an ABC News interview that he’s seen poachers kill mothers and leave the baby behind, and he assumed this was a similar situation in which the mother abandoned the bison. With no cell service to call a ranger, they decided the best course of action was to take the bison to the ranger station themselves.

He meant well, but when asked by the reporter what he’d do today in the same situation, Kassam replied, “In Yellowstone Park we would just leave it, because they say let the nature take the course.”

And that’s the point I’m trying to make.

I don’t know if we humans are ignorant about wild animals or arrogant in believing we’re superior so the animals will thus bend to our will. Or maybe it’s an even more dangerous combination of the two. But animals in Yellowstone are living in their natural environment, roaming and eating and hunting and copulating and giving birth and killing each other and just trying to live their damned lives without interference from humans who want to get a good photo for their Christmas card.

I imagine at the end of the day the bison and elk and deer and bear all meet up and compare notes: “Did you see the idiot with the camera trying to take a picture while I ate dinner?” “How ’bout the dummy trying to pet me? What a moron.” “I wanted so badly to eat that guy wearing the man purse, but Marge held me back.”

As Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the National Park Service, told ABC News, “We would much rather be doing interpretive programs and answering questions about that mountain, that lake, than writing tickets and hauling people to the hospital.”

Translation: because grown adults can’t control themselves, park rangers have to babysit them.

That the animals at Yellowstone aren’t mauling tourists on a daily basis speaks to their tolerance of our obsessive need to encroach on their privacy. It’s a gift they give to us.

Do them all a favor: Don’t pet the animals.

A gorilla, a boy, and life in the balance

Screenshot from the video of Harambe and the child who fell into the gorilla enclosure.

Screenshot from the video of Harambe and the child who fell into the gorilla enclosure.

By now you’ve probably heard the story about Harambe, the 17 year old west lowland gorilla who was shot by zoo keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo after a small child fell into the gorilla enclosure. I caught bits and pieces of the story over the holiday weekend, but it wasn’t until this morning that I was able to devote some attention to the matter.

I finally saw the video.

Originally, I didn’t want to touch this story with a 10 foot pole, mostly because I didn’t think that I could add anything to the conversation, which was getting more emotionally charged by the minute. I get enough hate mail when I take people to task for not obeying the leash law.

Another reason is because it’s not a simple issue. Each thread you pull unravels another thread and another and another, and before you know it you’re pondering everything from what constitutes parental neglect to the ethics of zoos in general to the disappearing gorilla habitat. I didn’t feel like I could blast off a quick post and do the story justice.

Then I was asked to write about it and so here I am, pondering all of those issues, but mostly wondering what transpires between man and beast when they come face to face and only one can survive the encounter.

The two minute video I watched was disturbing, but I was also surprised that it wasn’t the violent, bloody footage I’d expected to see after hearing the news bites all weekend. It seemed the boy faced far more danger from drowning than being thrown about by a gorilla.

I kept going back, not to the screams of the crowd; not to the horror that poor mother surely suffered watching her child being dragged through the water; not to the split second decisions required by zoo staff about whether to tranquilize or kill the animal in what they deemed was a life threatening situation.

What I kept coming back to were the moments when Harambe and the boy were sitting quietly, the gorilla blocking the boy from view of the screaming spectators, the boy’s stunned gaze fixed firmly on the majestic beast, the two barely moving as they summed up the situation, small child who wanted to swim with the gorillas, gorilla unsure what to do with this small child who had dropped into his front yard.

Toddler-sized awe focused on 400-plus pounds of raw power. Wild animal gently touching tiny human.

Yes, there is horror and anger and uproar at what ensued, and a little boy is in the hospital and an endangered animal is dead. But there is also mystery and, if I can be so bold, a beauty at what did not happen.

A beast did not kill a child.

The majestic creature, who never asked to be put on display, encountered a wee toddler, who could not resist the temptation to breach the barrier.

I let myself imagine that, in the chaos and confusion of the humans above, perhaps for a moment or two in the gorilla enclosure below the world stopped for Harambe and the child, and nothing existed but boy and animal, life and death, an ending for one and a new beginning for the other, and for a few seconds neither knowing which would experience which.

As we know, in a “wild animal vs humans” showdown like this, when two lives are at stake and no one can predict the animal’s next move, a choice must be made and be made quickly. And the human survives.

The humans had caged an animal and deemed him dangerous, and then prepared for the scenario just like this, when he would come face to face with a defenseless human.

What choice did zoo keepers have? When the child breeched the barrier, zoo officials immediately called the gorillas out of the enclosure. The two females complied. Harambe chose to stay with the boy. Even if Harambe was acting without malice, which appears to be the case, his sheer size could have accidentally killed the child. Action must be swift and sure; no time to negotiate a hostage exchange.

The alternative would have been to leave the toddler in there and see whether the gorilla snuggled him or tore him from limb to limb. If there is a person out there who thinks that was an option, please direct your hate mail in his direction.

I prefer to imagine that Harambe took stock of the situation and understood the inevitable outcome. Perhaps, I imagine, he sheltered the boy so that he could speak to him, living spirit to living spirit, assuring the child that he would be all right, that help would come, but needing the time to impart some raw animal wisdom of the ages that the child could carry with him through life.

Because this small child would live to tell the story of how he had been touched by a gorilla.

Read the official statement from the Cincinnati Zoo.

Raising funds to cover vet bills for the dogs injured in the Add En On kennel fire

Screenshot 13WHAM FB page

Screenshot 13WHAM FB page; click photo to read the story

This past Sunday, a devastating fire destroyed local animal kennel Add En On in Mendon, NY. While some of the dogs and cats managed to be saved, sadly more than a dozen didn’t make it out alive.

Those who did survive and who needed medical treatment were taken to Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services in Brighton, NY. Unfortunately, one of those dogs had injuries so severe he needed to be euthanized.

If you’d like to make a tax deductible donation (note that some of the crowd sourcing sites are not tax deductible) to cover the veterinary costs for the dogs who were injured, you can do through Rochester Hope For Pets. In the designation box, make sure you designate it to OTHER and specifically write in there that it’s “to pay for emergency expenses for the dogs injured in the Add En On fire.” The money goes directly to the charity which then disperses the funds as designated.

Make sure you designate your donation to help the dogs injured in the Add En On fire.

Make sure you designate your donation to help the dogs injured in the Add En On fire.

Rochester Hope for Pets is a local charity that offers financial assistance and grants to pet owners to help cover one time needs. It’s the charity I designated to receive my publisher’s charitable contributions from the sale of my books and I’ve also made donations – because I was a recipient of a grant when Scout died, which covered his final expenses.

And one last note: you do not have to take your dog to an animal hospital within the Monroe Vet system to have your expenses considered for a grant. That’s important to note. If you have a need and would like to apply, visit their website for more information.

Caledonia Jane Doe identified, and the next chapter of her story begins

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In November 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a field in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot and dragged into the field, and then shot again. For more than 30 years, she remained unidentified and her case unsolved.

Until today. Her case is still unsolved, but we now know that the girl is Tammy Jo Alexander, a teenager from Brooksville, Florida who was last seen in 1977.

For three decades, the Livingston County Sheriff Department has followed thousands and thousands and thousands of leads, never giving up in their attempt to identify the young woman and track down her killer.

According to news reports, a girl who went to high school with Tammy Jo contacted Florida authorities to ask if anyone had ever reported her missing. Apparently, no one had. Ever. With that new missing person report, police in New York were able to heat up their investigation and, using DNA from Tammy Jo’s sister, identify their Jane Doe.

With a name, I can search for information. Here’s Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

I mused about the case of Caledonia Jane Doe back in 2010 on my blog, when I was reflecting on my own life, my own wasted opportunities, my own sense of going through the motions of life rather than living them. Her story haunted me; Who was she? Where did she come from? Were her parents looking for her? And what would she be doing right now if she hadn’t met with such a tragic end?

My goal, at the time, was to research and then write about her story. I didn’t have any hope of solving a case or even shedding light on it. I just felt like there was  story to tell and I should tell it. Over the almost two decades I’ve spent writing, I’ve done countless feature stories for magazines and newspapers. I’ve interviewed celebrities and regular folks. I tell stories, often stories people can’t tell themselves.

But when I started researching Jane Doe, I quickly realized that I was out of my element. No person to interview. No name to Google. Almost no place to begin and, if I’m being totally honest, no idea where to start. I’d never researched a police case before, and I wasn’t familiar with places to even begin, or what to do with the information once I found it.

So rather than charging full steam ahead – which is what I felt like I should do – I put the folder on the desk and moved on to other things. But I never forgot about her.

Over the last few years, I’ve got more savvy about researching local history and genealogy, developed better techniques for managing mountains of information, newspaper clippings and notes (I love paper, so my filing system involves lots of folders and boxes). I dove headfirst into stories about women in the Rochester area in the 19th century (Emma Moore and Sarah Bardwell being chief), and while I never forgot about her, Caledonia Jane Doe stayed on the desk.

But I confess that as I watched the press conference today in which the Livingston County Sheriff announced that they had identified Caledonia Jane Joe as Tammy Jo Alexander, I felt a twinge of regret that five years ago I didn’t stick with my own research.

The important thing is that the unidentified body found in the cornfield thirty five years ago now has a name. Her headstone will have a name and my folder labeled “Caledonia Jane Doe” will be replaced with a new one labeled “Tammy Jo Alexander”. My curiosity is piqued again. Why did her family not report her disappearance? Where was she in the two years from when she was last seen in Florida to the time she was found in Caledonia? Her story is still waiting to be told.