Friday, July 21, 2006

Things Fall Apart

Our state’s Katrina outreach team has, in some ways, been a slow motion train wreck since the beginning. Some of it has to do with internal problems, but I’d have to say that most of it has been due to circumstances beyond our control. Now, all of a sudden things are falling apart fast. This week alone, we have lost at least one team member and this coming Monday we may lose another, both due to some pretty serious ethical breaches.

What is an ethical breach? It’s a term of art. Nothing either of these two people have allegedly done – that I know of – should warrant any sort of serious retribution if they were done within the context of one’s personal life. But when you are operating in the context of a FEMA sponsored crisis counseling program, it’s a different matter entirely. Some bad choices have been made here, and humans being humans we often don’t choose to do the most rational things. Additionally, and unfortunately, I sense that some of the stress that has been building up since September among the team in the field is now percolating to some of the higher-ups who are administering and evaluating the project, and that’s causing some problems too. I guess I can be included in that latter group of people.

Its interesting how just a few months ago, we thought wrapping this project up would be a cake walk since a major entity in our state got some big bucks to do case management – something that had been lacking here for nearly 6 months. Case management was arriving just in time: summer was coming, kids were out of school, and the anniversary is coming in the end of August – a period in which all the research literature and collective experience of disaster response projects across the country knew would be the time when all sorts of negative reactions would surge among survivors. Unfortunately things haven’t gone that well with our case management program. Sure there has been a lot of good done, but there are a lot of problems also. And again, there are no heroes or bad guys here. Humans are fallible, and when it comes to responding to all the shit that happens after a disaster, at times it seems like we play to our weaknesses a lot more than to our strengths.

I will be the first to admit that in many ways, I have lived a very lucky and quite a privileged life when compared to some of the people we have had to deal with here. And of course, I did not live through the flood. But being involved with trying to pick up the pieces hasn’t been a pleasant experience. There is a first time for everything. Today was the first time I have ever been involved in bringing Child Protective Services into a case.

I know this is something that some of you seasoned social workers out there may deal with every day. And I can only say that I have the utmost respect for you if you are reading this. At the same time, I get the feeling that it doesn’t get any harder to initiate a process in which the state may take some kids away from their parents. At least that’s the sense I get from working with a few of our field workers who had originally brought the matter to my attention. These individuals have been in the social work and counseling game for decades, yet they were still buckling at having to go forward with this because they know how serious this process can be.

I also know the family involved. I have no idea what they were doing in New Orleans before the flood. But since they have been here they have consistently been one of the few truly high needs cases on our radar. They’ve got several young kids. All the usual suspects are there: Chronic drug and alcohol abuse, the parents can’t hold jobs, and a variety of physical and mental ailments. The $10,000 check from FEMA has run out, and they sold the big screen TV they bought last fall for drugs and alcohol. And when the social security disability check comes in – which is their only legal source of income - the scum dealer is right there to take what’s owed to him. Their house is a mess, and last time I was there I heard the utilities were going to be turned off. I’ve heard hearsay from our workers that the kids smell like urine and shit all the time and no one changes the little ones’ diapers. Having seen the kids themselves I tend to think that might be true.

Bringing in CPS doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically take the kids away. I do know that they are experienced professionals that have to abide by strict regulations, and that a thorough investigation is completed before any drastic moves are made. Still, this is not something I feel very good about at all.

I don’t think that I will be happy when this project ends, which will probably be shortly after the anniversary. I will however have the luxury of being able to look the other way and forget about this whole experience if I choose to. My only hope is that nothing like Katrina will ever be allowed to happen again.

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