Archive for Mental Health

In 37 States, 180,000 Female Ex-drug Offenders, Particularly Minority Women, are Subjected to a Cruel Lifetime Embargo on Welfare Benefits

English: Logo of the .

English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 12 states, felony drug offenders face lifelong exclusion from most public benefits, even after serving prison time.   In 25 other states, women incarcerated for drug offenses are subjected to a partial embargo of benefits.

This is because of a hastily added provision to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), also known as the Welfare Reform Act, which aimed to reduce welfare dependence. Not only are women with drug convictions unlikely to get the help they need before or during their incarceration, but thanks to this provision many of them, after serving their time, will also face being barred for life from receiving most forms of public benefits—including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The purpose of the prohibition, supposedly, is to deter drug use and the criminal behavior that sometimes arises from it by making it harder for addicts to trade food stamps or use cash benefits for drugs. However, a new report by the nonprofit Sentencing Project, titled “A Lifetime of Punishment,” examined the impact of the PRWORA provision and found no evidence that this goal was being achieved. On the contrary, by denying benefits to those most in need, the ill-conceived embargo may be having a particularly devastating impact on women and children of color and is more likely to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and addiction that leads people to abuse or sell drugs in the first place.

Minority women are feeling the brunt of the prohibition. Today nearly one-third of women in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, and approximately two-thirds of them are black or Hispanic, even though data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services have shown that white women use drugs at roughly the same rate.

Over the past 30 years, the female prison population has increased at nearly twice the rate of the male prison population, an unprecedented development primarily attributable to the war on drugs.

A policy that denies those with drug convictions access to food and cash benefits for life starts to look especially cruel when you examine the lives of women who end up in prison. As of 2003, 74 percent of women in state prisons had substance-abuse issues, 57 percent reported having been sexually or physically abused prior to their incarceration, about 73 percent had some kind of mental-health problem and almost a quarter suffered from a psychiatric disorder. Sixty-four percent of women in state prisons did not graduate from high school, almost half were unemployed a month prior to their arrest and nearly two-thirds were mothers of minors.

Marc Mauer, a co-author of the Sentencing Project’s report and an expert on criminal-justice policy reform, comments:

It’s really irrational for Congress to have passed something as significant as this ban is for re-entry and life prospects of prisoners and not to have allocated any funding to evaluate its impact or to see if the legislation is meeting its goal.

The provision allows states to opt out of the prohibition if they wish, but so far, only 13 have done so. Twenty-five states have modified embargoes that either impose time limits or allow benefits contingent on completion of drug-treatment programs. Twelve states—including ones with high poverty levels and large prison populations like Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas—still have outright lifetime embargoes in place.

Bills have been introduced in Congress to repeal the prohibition, but none have gained enough support to change the policy. Meanwhile, a recent Farm Bill amendment introduced by Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter that sought to expand the scope of the embargo to retroactively include other felony convictions was approved by the Senate. Congress has yet to realize that in helping prisoners reintegrate into society, especially the most vulnerable among them, the carrot approach is much more beneficial than the stick.

When Martha Stewart left prison in 2004 after serving a five-month sentence for conspiracy and obstruction of justice, she issued an emotional plea on behalf of the women she did her time with, many of whom were locked up for nonviolent drug offenses:

I beseech you all to think about these women. They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison, where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate and no way to be prepared for life out there.

Stewart realized that many women with drug convictions were victims of lives crippled by poverty and hardship and that a little assistance from the state would be much more beneficial to them than a heavy dose of punishment.

PRWORA was a cornerstone of the Republican Contract with America and was introduced by Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw, Jr. Bill Clinton signed it into law on August 22, 1996, fulfilling his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” Immediately, three assistant secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services resigned to protest the law.
They believed that the 1996 welfare reform law destroyed the safety net, increased poverty, lowered income for single mothers, put people from welfare into homeless shelters and left states free to eliminate welfare entirely. It forced mothers with children from welfare to work, but many of them did not earn enough to survive. Many were just pushed off welfare rolls because they didn’t show up for an appointment, could not get to an appointment for lack of child care or were not notified of the appointment.

Feminist critic Barbara Ehrenreich charged:

PRWORA was motivated by racism and misogyny, using stereotypes of lazy, overweight, slovenly, sexually indulgent and ‘endlessly fecund’ African-American welfare recipients. PRWORA dismissed the value of the unpaid work of raising a family and insisted that mothers get paid work, no matter how dangerous, abusive, or poorly paid.

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Elemental Crime: Pb(CH2CH3)4 and the Cycle of Violence

English: Lead Paint

English: Lead Paint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many factors go into the making of an American criminal, but who would have thought that one of them might be lead?

A recent investigative piece by Mother Jones reporter Kevin Drum asserts just that, and it has sparked a wild flurry of debate in the wake of his extensive and damning article.

We all know that many childhood factors can influence a tendency towards crime. Broken homes, exposure to additive substances and many more are often trotted out, and rightfully so. Drum asserts that the ambient lead caused by lead paint and vehicle exhaust are directly linked  to crime rates.

Rick Nevin, a consultant working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, began finding correlations between the rise and fall of leaded gasoline and urban crime rates. He discovered that they describe almost identical curves, but are 23 years out of synch.

Jessica Reyes, public health policy professor at Amherst, weighs in on the research she did, inspired by being pregnant in a old house and learning about the dangers of lead. What Nevin found on the grand scale she found to also hold true on a more granular level (reporting via Mother Jones) :

If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you’d expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that’s exactly what she found.

Meanwhile, Nevin had kept busy as well, and in 2007 he published a new paper looking at crime trends around the world (PDF). This way he could make sure the close match he’d found between the lead curve and the crime curve wasn’t just a coincidence. Sure, maybe the real culprit in the United States was something else happening at the exact same time, but what are the odds of that same something happening at several different times in several  countries?

Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada, Great Britain,  Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand and West Germany. Every time the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn’t fit the theory. “No,” he replied. “Not one.”

Just this year, Tulane University researcher Howard Mielke published a paper with demographer Sammy Zahran on the correlation of lead and crime at the city level. They studied six US cities that had both good crime data and good lead data going back to the ’50s, and they found a good fit in every single one. In fact, Mielke has even studied lead concentrations at the neighborhood level in New Orleans and shared his maps with the local police. “When they overlay them with crime maps,” he told me, “they realize they match up.”

As New Orleans native I can tell you that the maps comparing crime and lead here in the Crescent City are so accurate that it is spooky.

Down under in Australia, researchers are finding almost identical results. ABC News Australia covered this as recently as Tuesday, April 9th when they published the following:

Professor Mark Taylor, an environmental scientist at Macquarie University, has now begun Australia’s first study comparing suburbs with high lead air pollution levels and local crime rates.

Professor Taylor says his research also indicates there is close to a 20-year time lag between the peaks in lead air pollution and peaks in the rates of assault.

  • Boolaroo: Lead air pollution peaked in 1988. The assault rate peaked 21 years later in 2009.
  • Earlwood, Sydney: Lead air pollution peaked in 1982. The assault rate peaked 20 years later in 2002.
  • Port Kembla: Lead air pollution peaked in 1979. The assault rate peaked 20 years later in 1999.
  • Lane Cove, Sydney: Lead air pollution peaked in 1978. The assault rate peaked 21 years later in 1999.

‘The locations we are looking at are, for example, Sydney, Rozelle, Earlwood, Boolaroo, the old lead smelter, Port Kembla as well, so we have been able to extract reasonably good records for those locations,’ he said.

‘We are not saying that it’s a one-to-one relationship; what we are saying is that lead exposure is associated with violent activity.’

The evidence just seems to keep piling up. While correlation does not denote causation, the correlations here seem to be almost universal. Here are a few links that provide a range of additional info on the subject.

Forbes, however, has done the best job of succinctly explaining why Drum’s theories hold the ring of truth:

There are three basic reasons why this theory should be believed. First, as Drum points out, the numbers correlate almost perfectly. ‘If you add a lag time of 23 years,’ he writes. ‘Lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.’

Second, this correlation holds true with no exceptions. Every country studied has shown this same strong correlation between leaded gasoline and violent crime rates. Within the United States, you can see the data at the state level. Where lead concentrations declined quickly, crime declined quickly. Where it declined slowly, crime declined slowly. The data even hold true at the neighborhood level – high lead concentrations correlate so well that you can overlay maps of crime rates over maps of lead concentrations and get an almost perfect fit.

Third, and probably most important, the data go beyond just these models. As Drum himself points out, ‘If econometric studies were all there was to the story of lead, you’d be justified in remaining skeptical no matter how good the statistics look.’ But the chemistry and neuroscience of lead gives us good reason to believe the connection. Decades of research has shown that lead poisoning causes significant and probably irreversible damage to the brain. Not only does lead degrade cognitive abilities and lower intelligence, but it also degrades a person’s ability to make decisions by damaging areas of the brain responsible for ‘emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning and mental flexibility.’

So there you have it: the latest front in the battle against crime is chemistry.

If any of our readers have a neuroscience background, we would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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Correctional System: Responding to Juveniles with Substance Abuse and Mental Health Needs

In their own words:

In order to provide effective treatment and programming to youth with behavioral health needs, juvenile justice authorities and their partners must be equipped to quickly identify individuals who may have these needs, make referrals for full assessments and appropriate services, and provide services both while the youths are in custody and during the reentry process. Presenters focus on the use of assessment tools and other treatment needs, and matching youths to appropriate and effective programs and supports.

Speakers:

  • Randy Muck, Senior Clinical Consultant, Advocates for Youth and Family Behavioral Health Treatment, LLC
  • Valerie Williams, Research Instructor and Co-Director, National Youth Screening and Assessment Project, Center for Mental Health Services Research, Department of Psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School
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Homelessness, NIMBY, and Perpetual Children

Today I’d like to share an article by Pat LaMarche that touches on aspects of the homeless problem that we have not yet examined in depth.

In her recent column on Common Dreams, None of the Poor Children Matter,  LaMarche comments on an increasingly common trend in US cities – the banishing from view of those in our society’s broken segments from the common view. This NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) mentality is one that we are seeing with increasing frequency, and its “out of sight, out of mind,” stance can only make an already intolerable situation worse.

Officials in Clearwater, Fla., are working diligently to put the hungry in their place. In this case that place is eight miles out of town at a facility near the county jail. The St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen is — according to the well fed elitists running the town — ‘enabling’ the handout taking behavior of those just looking for a meal.

This practice of the ‘haves banishing the have-nots’ to the hinterland is just a part of a trend that is sweeping the country. Clearwater isn’t alone in Florida and the practice is spreading to other regions. Philadelphia, Pa., has been in the news recently for their cutting-edge political philosophy that feeding people not only enables them but downright insults them if done in the presence of those who don’t need assistance.

To shuffle off the homeless to a site eight miles out of town in this fashion is reprehensible, to say the least. This is especially true when you factor in the number of children counted among the homeless.

It is appalling to shunt aside starving kids like this. I think we can all agree that children are innocent and not responsible for their circumstances. Privation during formative years like this is a recipe for a lifetime of ills, both social and physical.

The point that LaMarche makes with poigniant personal narrative is that not all of these children are young. The developmentally disabled are effectively children all their lives, and are often thrust onto the streets when their parents or guardians pass away.

 Many of the single women I worked with were permanently and equivalently 10, 11 or 12 years of age. Bonita — none of the names I’ll use here are real — told me when she showed up homeless at our once majestic hotel-turned-shelter, that she’d always wanted to live in a great big house with high ceilings and long stairways, but she didn’t know it would have so many homeless people in it.

You laugh or you cry in that line of work. Some days you do both.

I strongly advise reading this article, particularly for the story of the woman referred to simply as “Joan.” Trust me, it is a story that you need to read.

Drew Harwell of The Tampa Bay Times notes the ongoing battle between the city of Tampa and its homeless population: battle that involves the homeless being pushed further and further out of sight, despite their overwhelming numbers.

With more than 15,000 homeless people, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area has the highest rate of homelessness among metropolitan areas in the country, according to a 2012 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

But Clearwater’s offerings for the homeless have shrunk as officials have pushed for consolidating services in places like Safe Harbor or a nearby tent city named Pinellas Hope — a practice critics deride as ‘warehousing.’ The Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, a shelter and day center next to the soup kitchen that offered a number of services, closed last year after the city withdrew a $100,000 grant.

Are they deliberately trying to create new criminals? Think about it: if all of your options were suddenly gone and you had to resort to crime to put food in your children’s mouths wouldn’t you do it? Be honest.

By relocating food assistance eight miles out of town, the city is placing unnecessary hardship on people who already have a mountain of woes. The solution is to find a way to reintegrate them with day to day life, not to push them away in a fashion reminiscent of the way feudal lords in the Middle Ages treated their peasantry.

This trend of warehousing is one we intend to watch closely, as it is antithetical to every reputable finding on the subject of homelessness.

LaMarche is host of Maine’s The Pulse Morning Show (available online at zoneradio.com) and is also the author of Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States. Ms. LaMarche was the Green Party’s vice-presidential candidate in the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

If you are interested in learning more about the homeless issue in the US, you might wish to check out downTown U.S.A.: A Personal Journey with The Homeless, the first in our trilogy of books about modern-day social ills.

Talking Justice: Dr. Igor Koutsenok and Susan Madden Lankford

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Today we have a rare treat for you, our own Susan Madden Lankford sat down for a chat about the current sad state of affairs in the arena of American criminal justice. Fortunately we were able to record most of it for your edification.

Igor Koutsenok, MD, MS, is Director of the University of California San Diego, Center for Criminality and Addiction Research, Training and Application (CCARTA) and he has full time faculty appointment at the UCSD Department of Psychiatry. Among other place he attended St. Georges Hospital Medical School, where he received a Masters Degree in Addictive Behavior. Before joining UCSD, he worked in Bulgaria as Head of Department at the National Center for Addictions and Deputy Director of the Institute of Psychology.

During the last 20 years, he served as an expert for many international organizations such as the Council of Europe, European Union, and the United Nations. Dr. Koutsenok was recruited by the UCSD Department of Psychiatry in 1997. Dr. Koutsenok led the design and implementation of the Workforce Development Training series for substance abuse counselors and criminal justice professionals working in custody and community-based treatment programs in California. He is the UCSD FACT (Forensic Addiction Treatment Certification) Board of Education Director and Director of the Offender Substance Abuse Treatment Institute.

Dr. Koutsenok serves as of the trainers for the National Drug Court Institute, providing training and education for judges and members of the judicial system nationwide. Dr. Igor Koutsenok and Dr. David Deitch designed an innovative approach to reduce recidivism in parolees, which in 2006 was presented to and authorized by the California legislature as Senate Bill 618 – Offender Re-Entry Program.
Dr. Koutsenok is teaching General Psychopathology course for second year UCSD medical students, human growth and development course for 1st year UCSD medical students, as well as he runs support group for 3rd year UCSD psychiatry residents. In 2006-2009 he designed and directed the Cal-METRO training project, a large-scale Motivational Interviewing training project to train over 3000 professionals working in juvenile correctional institutions statewide. In 2010 he designed and conducted a year long San Diego Probation Department Leadership Academy training probation supervisors in practical implementing of evidence based practices in community corrections, such as motivational interviewing, and cognitive behavioral interventions. Recently in collaboration with Christopher Lowenkamp, PhD, he designed the IBIS program – Integrated Behavioral Interventions Strategies. Currently over 300 probation officers and supervisors are undergoing training, coaching and mentoring in implementation of a truly integrated package of behavioral interventions – motivational interviewing, EPICS-II, and incentives and sanctions. He has authored and co-authored over 50 scientific publications and book chapters, such as “Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook” 4th edition, Lowinson, J., Ruiz, P., Millman, R., & Langrod, J. (Eds.), 2004; “Treating Addicted Offenders – A Continuum of Effective Practices”, K.Knight & D. Farabee (Eds.), 2005; “Advances in Corrections Based Treatment: Building the Addiction Treatment Workforce”, Praeger International Collection on Addictions, A. Browne-Miller (Ed.), 2009, “Motivational Interviewing Training for Correctional Professionals – The CalMetro Project”, Praeger International Collection on Addictions, A. Browne-Miller (Ed.), 2009. He is a member of the International Motivational Interviewing Trainers Network. In 2011 he served as a trainer for the new group of MI trainers in Sheffield, England. Dr. Koutsenok has been training motivational interviewing and other treatment strategies in offenders in Bulgaria, Malta, England, Hong Kong, Greece, Poland, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Hungary, and Norway. He has been invited as guest speaker to numerous conferences and professional gatherings nationwide and in more than 15 countries. He is a proud father of three.

Susan Madden Lankford

In the early 1990s, Susan Madden Lankford began photographing—and befriending—the homeless on the streets of downtown San Diego. Compelled to learn more, she gained access to a women’s detention center and soon was shooting within its walls, speaking with candor with inmates and staff. Next, pursuing the link between crime and childhood neglect, she met with young people in juvenile hall, challenging them to face their hopes and fears through artwork and the written word. Lankford’s award-winning books on homelessness, incarceration, and juvenile justice are testament to many years of commitment to complex social issues. Her venture in the realm of documentary film continues this work.

Susan Lankford grew up in the Midwest and holds a BS degree from the University of Nebraska. She attended Ansel Adams’ prestigious workshops, studied under such photographic masters as Richard Misrach and Ruth Bernhard, and spent many years as a successful wildlife photographer and portraitist. The parents of three adult daughters, Susan and Rob Lankford live in San Diego.
Please explore the rest of our website for more about Susan and her works!


New Study: Health Care in the Juvenile Justice System

SyringeHealth care is an issue that has been all over the news for quite some time now. Unfortunately the health care of the youthful and incarcerated has often been overlooked as Washington attempts to implement new programs for the voting masses.

Not anymore. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Adolescence has released a policy statement, the first update in a decade to the Health Care for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System. It finds that incarcerated youth are at high-risk for health issues, physical, mental and developmental. Here is the statement’s abstract for an overview:

Youth in the juvenile correctional system are a high-risk population who, in many cases, have unmet physical, developmental, and mental health needs. Multiple studies have found that some of these health issues occur at higher rates than in the general adolescent population. Although some youth in the juvenile justice system have interfaced with health care providers in their community on a regular basis, othershave had inconsistent or nonexistent care. The health needs of these youth are commonly identified when they are admitted to a juvenile custodial facility. Pediatricians and other health care providers play an important role in the care of these youth, and continuity between the community and the correctional facility is crucial. This policy statement provides an overview of the health needs of youth in the juvenile correctional system, including existing resources and standards forcare, financing of health care within correctional facilities, and evidence-based interventions. Recommendations are provided for the provision of health care services to youth in the juvenile correctionalsystem as well as specific areas for advocacy efforts. Pediatrics 2011; 128:1219–123

According to the report nearly 11 million juveniles across the nation were arrested in 2008. Not all of them suffered detention, long or short term, but the average stay behind bars for the ones who did was 65 days as of 2006. Of those in custody, 80% remained in detention for at least 30 days and 57% for at least 90 days. All of them requiring health care of some sort. Unfortunately that health care often does not appear, and when it does it is often substandard.

Ryan Schill, a writer for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, shares some of the policy statement author’s views on why these changes have been enacted:

‘We wanted to advocate for these youth to have the same level and standards of care as non-incarcerated youth in the community,” the report’s lead author, Dr. Paula Braverman, Director of Community Programs at the Cincinatti Children’s Hospital Medical Center said in an email. She said the Committee on Adolescence also “outlined specific recommendations which included the training and skill of the health care providers.’

All too often health care in detention facilities is administered by people with insufficient training in the subject. She also touched on a subject that we here at HumaneExposures find to be vital:

‘We also wanted to highlight some areas for advocacy,’ she said, ‘including the need for adequate levels of funding to provide for the medical, behavioral health and educational needs of these youth.’ Equally important, she said, are intervention programs in the community ‘that address the risk and protective factors related to involvement in the juvenile justice system.’

Once more we have support for the idea that intervention, rehabilitation, and education are vital pieces to the puzzle. With such a preponderance of evidence that these tactics work there is still resistance to them. Hopefully as we see more high stature organizations like The American Academy of Pediatrics weigh in on the subject we will see the needed shift in public opinion.

Image Source: Yanivba on Flickr, used under it’s Creative Commons license

The Second Chance Women’s Re-Entry Court: Choosing Treatment Over Incarceration

Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing TimeJudge Michael Tynan’s fourth-floor courtroom in downtown L.A.’s Criminal Courts building is in our spotlight today. It’s a room that’s usually packed with people that are often discarded by society: the addicts, the mentally ill or disadvantaged, the homeless, and, more recently, the female parolees.

Victoria Kim, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, writes:

The Los Angeles County Superior Court judge oversees a number of programs known as collaborative or problem-solving courts, designed to address the underlying issues — addictions, mental health, poverty — that lead to repeated arrests and prison terms.

For this, we applaud Judge Tynan. One of the biggest flaws of the current system is that it’s like an over-the-counter medicine that treats the symptoms but often not the ailment itself. This pattern of issues has an amazing impact on the lives of those who experience them firsthand, almost always to their own detriment as well as the society’s. Tynan has a solid understanding of this, and has steadily worked to address these social ills.

Kim brings us a thumbnail view of Tynan’s most recent program, a three-year-old effort that aims to help transition women inmates to appropriate treatment rather than use traditional incarceration:

Since 2007, Tynan has been running the Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court program, one of the first in the nation to focus on women in the criminal justice system. Through the court, women facing a return to state prison for nonviolent felonies plead guilty to their crimes and enter treatment instead.

Although women make up only a small fraction of prison inmates, their numbers have been climbing for decades at a far steeper rate than men’s. Women are also more likely to be convicted of nonviolent drug or property crimes motivated by addictions or necessity.

As a publisher, we have examined these underlying factors and their influence on the individual and on society. Our award-winning documentary, It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing, addresses them, and looks at both the social and financial cost of not going after the root causes.

Tynan’s work is yet another proof that our assertions are correct. The women in this program are housed in a Pomona drug treatment facility for women called Prototypes. If accepted, the women live there for six months while their schedules are filled with job-skills classes, therapy, support-group meetings, and  chores. Incarcerated mothers and their children are reunited, and the mothers both undergo counseling and attend parenting classes. Pretty comprehensive, isn’t it?

Let’s take a look at Kim’s article once more and evaluate the cost factor:

The treatment, currently funded through a grant from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and donated services from Prototypes, costs about $18,000 for each woman per year. But compared with keeping them in prison and their children in foster care for years, the state is saving millions of dollars, the program’s organizers say.

All of our studies indicate that this is not a fluke, but rather is representative of the savings that can generally be attained once a more proactive social stance is adopted. In short, if we fix the societal ills that lead to incarceration or recidivism directly, it will have more impact for less monetary expenditure than simple imprisonment. Remember, it really is more expensive to do nothing!

Source: “Court program helps women turn their lives around,” The Los Angeles Times, 10/18/10
Image copyright Susan Madden Lankford, from the book “Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time.” Used with permission.

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Kelly Davis Hits Home on the Homeless Issues

RIP Homeless PersonIt was not all that long ago that we wrote about a census of the homeless being undertaken in downtown San Diego, a census that just might inspire a similar effort in the city’s Uptown area. Today, we would like to revisit that topic by calling your attention to a wonderful piece written by Kelly Davis in the San Diego City Beat.

It’s an excellent read that provides Davis’ both a firsthand account of participating in the survey and a thumbnail breakdown of the similar social justice initiatives over the recent years. The combination of history and narrative makes a great introduction to the issue as expressed in the San Diego’s culture. Unlike many efforts of this nature, Davis’ is not blindingly negative about everything — she points out little known but important successes. She writes:

It’s not like San Diego doesn’t know how to be innovative. In the late ’90s, three programs started here that are held up as models nationwide: homeless court, designed to deal with the unique problems of homelessness in the criminal justice system; Stand Down, the annual weekend-long event that provides shelter and services to homeless vets; and the San Diego Police Department’s Serial Inebriate Program, which offers the option of treatment rather than jail time to homeless chronic alcoholics. But when it comes to providing housing and shelter, San Diego has lagged.

While the survey that Common Ground helped organize here — and in roughly three-dozen other cities — has a goal of breaking down the problem into manageable sets of data (finding out, for instance, the number of homeless seniors who might qualify for housing vouchers), it’s also an attempt to put names, faces and stories to homelessness.

And that is really the key, is it not? To re-humanize the people who have been objectified and forgotten by society as a whole. Of course, that is only one aspect of the effort being undertaken both by that group, and the others.

Davis’ recounting of an encounter with a homeless woman known only as “Sonya” points out one large gap that even this approach has yet to close. Obviously mentally ill, Sonya had trouble answering even the most rudimentary questions and has declined to take part in the survey. Becky Kanis, director of innovations for the New York-based housing and social-services provider Common Ground, who was in San Diego for the survey, states that it is people like Sonya, who decline to participate in the census, are in jeopardy the most. We have yet to find a way to address that gap, but, as with all things, we must approach this one step at a time.

Source: “Action = good,” San Diego City Beat, 09/29/10
Image by Matt From London, used under its Creative Commons license
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Nurturing in Early Years Has Direct Impact on Child Development

Child's EyeAn oft recurring theme on the HUMANE EXPOSURES blog is the effect of parenting and environment on the early development of children. Studies of runaways and incarcerated juveniles show a correlation between those early years and the eventual path that the child takes as an adult.

Think of how frequently the topic of abuse or a neglect-ridden childhood comes up in court and in the studies of repeat offenders. Consider the personal narratives of the homeless and how much of a recurring theme these issues are in their plight.

Enter Notre Dame psychology professor Darcia Narvaez who has helmed a recent group of studies that confirm earlier work done in the field. The results suggest that children who get more physical affection during infancy turn out to be kinder, smarter, and more caring about others.
Maia Szalavitz, a journalist and author of some renown in this field, noted Narvaez’ work in her recent column on Time Magazine‘s Healthland blog:

Narvaez, who will present her findings at a conference in early October, conducted three separate studies. The first compared parenting practices in the U.S. and China. Another followed a large sample of children of teen mothers who were involved in a child abuse–prevention project, and compared outcomes of various types of early parenting practices. The third examined how parents of 3-year-olds behaved toward their children.

So we have a nice broad base to start from, that’s good. The variety of studies does give us confidence about the veracity of the findings. Szalavitz writes:

All three studies suggested the same thing: children who are shown more affection early in life reap big benefits. Researchers found that kids who were held more by their parents, whose cries received quick responses in infancy and who were disciplined without corporal punishment were more empathic — that is, they were better able to understand the minds of others — later in life.

Later in the column, Narvaez neatly sums up the findings:

‘What’s been studied most is responsivity,’ [Narvaez] says, referring to the way parents respond to their babies and act accordingly, for example, noticing when they are about to cry and reacting appropriately to subtle positive and negative signals about what they want. ‘[Responsivity] is clearly linked with moral development. It helps foster an agreeable personality, early conscience development and greater prosocial behavior.”

Even behavioral research on rats bears this out. Rats raised by neglectful mothers tend to be not as fast, smart, or social as their more doted-on counterparts.

Research like this is highly important. If we are ever to cure the society’s ills, we need to know where our efforts need to be applied. Work like this confirms our already existent ideas about how crucial early development is when looked at in the context of its impact on later life.

We would also advise checking out more work by Maia Szalavitz. She is a journalist who covers health, science and public policy. She is a co-author, with leading child trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential– and Endangered, (Morrow, 2010). They previously co-authored The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing (Basic, 2007). Her work in the field of journalism runs the gamut from The New York Times and The Washington Post to New Scientist and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other major publications.

Source: “No Such Thing as Too Much Love: ‘Spoiled’ Babies Grow Up to Be Smarter, Kinder Kids,” Time Magazine, Healthland, 09/29/10
Image by apdk, used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Link Between Prostitution and Homelessness

Homeless girlAmong the significant number of homeless teens on the street there are many who have been reduced by circumstances to prostitution. It’s a grim and ugly reality.

One of the factors that makes this issue less visible, in addition to the blind spot many develop towards the homeless in general, is the fact that it does not always adhere to the expectations. The classic stereotype of “hooker and pimp” is only one of many permutations possible on the streets. Prostitution does not always involve an exchange of favors for currency.

Laura Rillos, KVAL News, reports:

[Chris] Mirabal [program manager of Looking Glass New Roads, a day shelter dedicated to homeless youth] said the most common is called ‘survival sex.’  Typically, a person will offer a homeless youth a place to stay and expect sexual activity in return.

Sometimes, said Mirabal, the teen is not aware of the arrangement until after they’ve stayed with a person for a few days or weeks.

This form of predatory behavior is not confined to targeting the female gender. Homeless males find themselves being pushed into these compromising situations as well:

‘They wanted to have, like me have sex with her, while I’m staying on their couch, as part of rent,’ said a young homeless man who wanted to be identified as Brain. ‘I was like, I can’t do that. I’m sorry.’

Brain is 21 years old. He acknowledges his age and gender made it easier for him to say no and leave that situation.

Lack of resources can drive people to desperate measures. Add in the possibility of mental health or substance abuse issues, and the situation gets rapidly worse. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from it become easier to rationalize things like this.

The escalating harshness of life on the streets over the recent years is also a factor. Young homeless girls in particular are at risk of rape, assault, and descent into prostitution. Without the normal support infrastructure provided by family and friends their vulnerability escalates.

Wendy McElroy, editor of ifeminists and someone who has herself been homeless, has commented on this aspect of the situation back in 2001:

The situation confronting homeless teens is worse today than when I ran away. It was the dead of winter when I left, and for the first nights I slept on the pew of a church whose doors were always open. Today, those doors would probably be locked. I was at one point ‘discovered,’ which was my greatest fear, but the person simply put a blanket over me and left without waking me up. Today, society is numbed to homelessness; we are overwhelmed with compassion fatigue and acts of gratuitous kindness seem to be fewer. We avert our eyes from the hand-painted signs and ignore the rattling cups.

McElroy’s position in the column is a controversial one. She advocates loosening of the child-labor restrictions so that the underage homeless can work and develop their own resources. Her reasoning is that most of the homeless in that age range are fleeing an abusive environment at home, and most programs are geared to return them to that home. Obviously, it is an idea that has gained little traction in the near decade since.

Source: “‘Survival sex’ lures homeless teens into prostitution,” KVAL.com, 02/09/10
Source: “Homelessness and Prostitution,” ifeminists, 05/15/01
Image by Franco Folini, used under its Creative Commons license.

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