Sunday, June 3, 2012

The real problem with Scott Walker's "Crime" ad that no one is talking about

(Warning-This post involves child abuse resulting in deaths. Multiple. It was hard to write and may be hard to read)
Originally posted at Daily Kos

If you have been following the events in Wisconsin, you have probably seen this attack ad released by Friends of Scott Walker

"This 2-year-old spent six days in intensive care after being severely beaten," says the Walker ad's narrator. "But Tom Barrett’s police department didn’t consider it a violent crime." The ad then shows crime statistics and asserts "violent crime is up" in Milwaukee. The controversial ad-which has been criticized by the criminologist who was quoted as "misleading"- took center stage at last weeks debate, in one of the most emotionally charged moments of the night:
"He's running a commercial right now that shows a dead baby," Barrett said during the debate. "It shows a picture of a dead baby. This is Willie Horton stuff. That baby died."  
"You're running a commercial attacking my integrity, claiming that I had something to do with this, and you know that's false," added Barrett, his voice rising. "You tell me whether you think I had anything to do with that."  
Walker began to respond, saying, "No, I'm asking you --" Before he could finish, Barrett cut him off. 
"I'll tell you right now, I had nothing to do with that," Barrett said. "You should be ashamed of that commercial, Scott Walker."
Like many who watched the debate, I was confused by Tom Barret's statement. The ad states that the child spent 2 weeks in the ICU, but doesn't mention a death. I hoped that he had misspoken. Sadly, he did not.

According to the report by the Journal Sentinel cited by the ad, the child they are referring to is 2 year old Karmari Curtis
MILWAUKEE -- An arrest has been made in the death of a 2-year-old boy brought to the hospital on Saturday April 2nd. The man in custody is the mother's boyfriend, and police said it's not the first time the suspect is accused of abusing the child.  
Officers went to an apartment building near 22nd Street and Wisconsin Avenue on Saturday, after the 26-year-old man living there took his girlfriend's 2-year-old son to the hospital.Police said the toddler was pronounced dead at 6:27 p.m. The boyfriend was arrested shortly after.  
Monday, no one was at the boyfriend's apartment, where police said the abuse happened, but a neighbor told 12 News there was nothing suspicious Saturday night. "I didn't hear anything," said Rosie Ballard, neighbor. "I was in bed when the police came." Police said it was the same victim, and Benson ruptured the toddler's liver at the same apartment while the child was in his care Oct. 25. 12 News also obtained the no-contact order filed against Benson. His trial was set for this May. 
Neighbors said the toddler and his mother did not live at the apartment but would visit frequently. Neighbors didn't see anything unusual when they came this weekend. "Friday night, I maybe heard a little noise, but when I hear bumping or knocking something I pay no attention to it because sometimes it happens," said Ballard. 
Police have not said what the child's injuries are as officers continue to investigate, and the department has put a non-disclosure on the medical examiner's report. An autopsy was to be performed today. 
The Department of Children and Families released a statement from Arlene Happach, the director of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. It reads, "This child's death is a tragedy, and our deepest sympathy is with his family and others who loved him. We are investigating the role of the bureau in this case."
So why did the Walker campaign leave out the fact that Karmari was murdered? Granted, it could have been to avoid admitting that they were ghoulish enough to use a deceased child as a political prop-but using a battered one isn't really that much better. And such a horrific murder would certainly play right in to the narrative of a crime-ridden Milwaukee under Tom Barrett.

But perhaps there is another reason why Scott Walkers campaign didn't mention it-Perhaps because it would lead to the fact that, at the time of Karmari's death, he was known to the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW)-a state-run agency that Scott Walker was ultimately responsible for overseeing. And perhaps more importantly, the fact that the BMCW was one of the first government agencies subjected to the privatization treatment that Scott Walker is now trying to inflict on the rest of Wisconsin's governmental functions, with disastrous consequences.

"Laboratories of Innovation"

In the 1990's, the nation embarked on a bold new experiment in the privatization of social services. At the tip of the spear was the Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or PRWORA, fulfilling his campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it". PRWORA replaced the federal Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC) program with block-grants to the states. The states, as Clinton put it, could become "laboratories for innovation"-experimenting with the lives of poor women and their children.

Thompson, along with Scott Walker and his republican-led state legislature, established the Wisconsin Works program, or W-2, under which welfare recipients had to participate in mandatory job-training workshops or perform community service in order to get their checks. In what was at the time an unprecedented step, Thompson and his Republican controlled legislature drafted legislation decided to delegate oversight of the W-2 program to private contractors. The results of this, depending on who you ask, were either a miracle or a disaster. In getting people off of welfare, they were indeed remarkably successful. Wisconsin caseloads plummeted by 93 percent, and W-2 was hailed the most successful welfare program in the country-a storyline that the media at the time was more than happy to repeat without question.

In reality though, the privatization effort was a disaster. The contracted agencies rode the gravy train of corporate welfare, wasting tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money on marketing gimmicks, personal largesse, and political lobbying-All the while spending precious few resources on their vulnerable clients. Nevertheless, Thomspon and company decided to parlay the "success" of privatization into other government agencies. And in 1998, they got the chance to try it out on the high-stakes world of child protection.

Failure to Protect

In the 1990's, a group of child rights advocates filed a lawsuit against Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin for violating the rights of children in the foster care system. As part of the settlement, the child advocacy groups, the state, and the county agreed to have a private audit done. The audits revealed that the main issue was quite simple-Milwaukee County Child Welfare was not being adequately funded by the state.

The state denied this finding and stated that Milwaukee was getting enough money, but that it was being mismanaged. So in 1998, Tommy Thompson and his Republican controlled state legislature (notable members of which included Scott Walker and Alberta Darling) wrote a line in the budget that the State would take over the child welfare system in any county with a population of over 500,000. There was only one county that fit this description-Milwaukee.

Thus, the state-controlled Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare was formed. It had a starting budget that was more than $30 million dollars higher than what they allotted Milwaukee County when it ran the system. Over the course of the next three and a half years, Milwaukee County was slowly, but surely, forced out of the system as it was almost entirely privatized. And in the meantime, the children under their watch died at alarming rates.

While nationally and across Wisconsin, the rates of child maltreatment fell sharply in the 2000's, Milwaukee county remained a glaring exception. Dozens of children-including over 20 who were known to the BMCW at the time of their deaths-were killed by their caregivers. A few of these cases were profiled in a heartbreaking report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
• At least 11 children, such as 7-month-old Layunnia Lewis, who died even though their families had been in contact with social workers more than once during the child's life, often spanning months. Layunnia died due to neglect in November 2006.  
• Three children who died as a result of abuse or neglect in foster homes, relatives' homes or institutions where they were supposed to be protected. One was Angellika Arndt, a 7-year-old who suffocated in 2006 when workers at a day treatment center held her face down for an hour.  
• Two children who died even though their parents were reported to the bureau for suspected abuse or neglect. One of them was Rubi Ochoa-Cervantes, who was reported to the bureau for an unexplained skull fracture a month before her father beat her to death in 2005. She was just 2 months old.  
• Four babies who were overlooked by the child welfare system even though their older siblings previously had died or suffered abuse or neglect. Among them was Lamour Caesar-Burnley, who starved to death even as a criminal child neglect charge was pending against his mother.
The deaths were so numerous, and so tragically unnecessary, that eventually the state legislature had no choice but to conduct another audit of the program in 2005. The results were disturbing. The audit found private agencies spending thousands of dollars on gifts for employees, as well as delays in services to children in foster care and to their families, glacial child abuse investigations and a staggering level of caseworker turnover. Badger state blogger Chris Liebenthal has written about this topic extensively on his excellent blog Cognitive Dissidence. As a former Milwaukee County Child Welfare Worker himself, he offers a unique perspective of what these changes looked like in practice:
When I worked for Milwaukee County as a child welfare worker, the entire program was done by the County. Investigations, on-going case management, adoption studies, and foster home licensing was all done by the County. Because it was all done by one agency, there was a high level of communication going on. If the foster home licensing worker came to check to make sure that the home was still following guidelines and requirements, and found something wrong, the case manager was notified, and appropriate action was taken, including removing the children from harm's way. Likewise, if the case manager saw problems, and had to remove the kids, the licensing worker was notified immediately, and necessary actions were taken to either correct the problem or to revoke their license.  
Now, under the BMCW, all of these duties can be done by various different agencies. Furthermore, the way the BMCW has been structured, it actually hinders communication between these agencies and between the workers. The right hand literally doesn't know what the left one is doing.  
Another problem with the system is how they decide to track and organize cases. Under the old system, the cases were organized by the family, with the mother being the main case. She would then be assigned a number for administrative purposes. All of her children were given the same number with an alphabetical suffix to reflect the order of their birth. For example, if a case was opened for a mother, it could receive a number like 123456. If said mother had multiple children, they would have case numbers 123456A, 123456B, 123456C and so on.  
Under the Bureau, it goes by the child. The computer system was supposed to keep track of the names via a data base, and put members of the family in the same caseload, but the programming did not work. There were many times when a single family could have numerous case numbers and different workers scattered throughout the system, with the workers not even knowing that the other cases existed.  
Instead of a system that has all of its different functions working together for a common cause, the design of the system, including breaking it into parts for privatization purposes, as caused an atmosphere of isolation and competition. Instead of working together to protect children, you have several agencies working against each other, in hopes to get a bigger part of the pie. The result is more needless and senseless deaths of the most vulnerable of our community.
Tragically, it took yet another needless and senseless death before any action was taken.

Christopher Thomas


In 2008, 13-month-old Christopher Thomas was placed by BMCW into the care of his Aunt, along with his 2 year old sister. Oversight for Christopher and his sister's placement was handled by the private contracting firm La Causa.

In less than two months Christopher was dead, and his sister was hospitalized in critical condition.

By all accounts, Crystal Keith began mistreating both children from the moment they came into her care. The abuse they endured was described by seasoned investigators as the worst they had ever seen. Yet during the months the children were abused, La Causa caseworkers visited the home five times, and missed seemingly obvious evidence of their maltreatment. Christopher died within 11 days of their last visit.

The case of Christopher Thomas provoked outrage and disbelief, and ultimately led to monumental changes at the BMCW. That was the claim, anyways. In reality, the changes were mostly window dressing. The Director of BMCW at the time of Christopher Thomas' death resigned from her position-and was subsequently hired into a similar position in the State of Washington. La Causa opted to cancel its 11 million dollar contract, and was replaced by another private contractor called Integrated Family Services. Integrated Family Services then re-hired virtually the entire La Causa staff, including the supervisor who was in charge of the Christopher Thomas case.

The most recent progress report, released last month showed that the year 2010 saw some promising improvements in outcomes, but the issues of staff turnover and bureaucratic inefficiencies that have plagued BMCW from the beginning still remain. And with the Walker Budget Repair Bill cutting so deeply into the very anti-poverty programs that have been shown to protect against child maltreatment, it remains to be seen if the agency is yet strong enough to deal with the fallout from a broken safety net.

Karmari Curtis

And that leads us to 2011, and the tragic case of Karmari Curtis. After he was hospitalized in October 2010, his case was referred to the BMCW. Little is known about what services, if any, he received from them. Their last public statement on the matter was made at the time of his death, when director Arlene Happach said that they would be investigating their role in the matter. And given the highly classified nature of these investigations, we will probably never know the full truth about what happened.

There is one thing that is not in dispute, however. While Scott Walker is quick to point fingers at Tom Barrett for the rising crime rates in Milwaukee, when it comes to cases of child maltreatment like that which took the life of little Karmari, he never had any jurisdiction over it in the first place. Child abuse cases within Milwaukee homes are handled by the BMCW, which means it was ultimately the responsibility of the state to protect him from further harm. And at the time of his death, the chief executive of the state was none other than Scott Walker himself.

Above all else, there is one thing we should not lose sight of. Karmari Curtis was a human being-not a statistic. He had a family and other people in his life who loved him, who now have to have his death thrown in their face every time Friends of Walker gives this ad airtime. They do not deserve that.

And this little man...


did not deserve to have his life end in such a horrific way, nor does he deserve to have his precious memory cheapened and exploited by the likes of Scott Walker.

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