Posts tagged ‘Protest’

Kings County and the Death of Esmin Green: Still Outraged

Some time around 6:30 am, two years ago today, Esmin Green was involuntarily admitted to Kings County’s psychiatric ER where she was ignored for 24 hours, the last of which she spent face down on the floor — writhing at first and ultimately dying in the presence of  the staff members whose job it was to care for her.

Think about that as you glance at the clock, going about your day today — how far 6:30 in the morning seems from your lunch, the end of the workday, prime time television. Think about where you’ve spent your day and how it compares to where Esmin was all that time just two years ago.

I’m still outrageed, still disgusted that we live in a society that allows that and — as long as it’s just those mentally ill over there — accepts it. We’ve created a line and carefully keep who and what lies on the other side out of our sight –as if there really is an us and a them. There isn’t. As long as we have a class of people who can be treated by force we have a public that cares little about what happens to them behind closed doors but there is no class and public. There’s just us and what we do to others, we’re doing to one of our own.

The only real rarity in this story is that it was caught on video. If it hadn’t been you would never have known about it. It would just be another death in another psych hospital — with no one to cry foul. KCHC has been operating like this for decades and even now, in their costly new building, under federal monitoring and with new accountability policies in place — the abuses continue.

I’m going to Brooklyn today — to King’s County. I’m going in remembrance of Esmin Green and in protest of an institution beyond reform. I’m going to stand aside others who won’t accept the state of the system and are standing up in the streets, demanding change — and when I glance at the time, I’ll know I’m where I need to be. Will you?

Previous Related Posts:

Esmin Green Demonstration and Vigil (2009)

Kings County Hosital to be Monitored by Federal Judge

Sexual Assault by Kings County Employee

Kings County: A Call to Action


June 18, 2010 at 10:46 am

Kings County: A Call to Action

You may have heard — you should have heard — of a woman named Esmin Green. She was involuntarily admitted to the psychiatric emergency room of Kings County Hospital, a place already known for a long record of violence, sexual assault, abuses and neglect. Unfortunately for Ms. Green and countless others, when you are someone who is allowed be shoved into places against your will, you have no say about which places and what standards, if any, are upheld there. Esmin died face down on the floor of the psych ER after being neglected for more than 24 hours.

As a telling video of the staff’s complete and ultimately fatal disregard for her was released, they had little choice but to go into public relations overdrive. They agreed to make all kinds of policy changes and rules about accountability as if adhering to policy and truthfully recording their actions was something they were good at. Knowing that if you throw money at a problem people read it as care, they also built a $153 million replacement for the notorious G building where all of these abuses were happening. Not surprisingly, the horrors continue — even under federal monitoring. Kings County’s Building R is little more than a multi-million dollar snake pit.

Last year, I attended a vigil in Esmin’s memory and a protest of the hospital’s neglect and continued abuses against people labeled mentally ill. It was organized by We The People and was as successful as we might have hoped, though the work is not done. Survivors of psychiatric abuses had an opportunity to speak out — and what some of these survivors had to say is not to be missed. I heard from several people that have helped inform and shape my approach toward activism and human rights.

This year, two years after her death, We The People will not let it drop as the problem clearly continues and I intend to stand with them in protest of a place that, for all their talk and money, is clearly beyond reform. We need to stand in solidarity with those behind locked doors and let the ones with the keys know we’re watching. Come out June 18th – 19th and demand justice, choice and human rights in mental health, voice your disapproval of the current standard of care and show them that there is a growing opposition in the public. Human rights are universal and a diagnosis cannot be allowed to erode that or even worse — invite abuse. When we look back in the light of hindsight at an era that saw basic human and civil rights denied people labeled ill and how many times we’ve collectively turned a blind eye to staggering amounts of abuse, we will look back in disgust. At least I’ll know which side I was on.

See below fliers for details and feel free to copy, repost and display them in support of the event.


May 22, 2010 at 9:51 am

Kendra’s Law — Five More Years?

Kendra’s Law, a controversial New York state law enacted in 1999 under the Mental Hygiene Law, is due to sunset in June. If you hear about it from both sides enough, it’s easy to overcomplicate things and muddy the waters but what it really comes down to is that Kendra’s Law enables the state to drug people who they think might become criminals. Kendra’s law is in place solely to allow the forced treatment of people deemed mentally ill using fear of violence, however unfounded, as its leverage. It enables the state to strip people of their rights based on a diagnosis. Last I knew, the constitution (at least on paper) applied to all of us and not just those the state deems mentally qualified to share in the rights it’s meant to guarantee. That is a very scary path to be on and make no mistake — we are on it.

While its future is unclear, Kendra’s Law might very well be extended for another five years but not without a fight from a grassroots organization (no, not that one — a real grassroots organization) formed to protect the rights of people regarded as mentally ill — We The People. I, for one, hope they are able to help turn things around. They’ve been making their presence and stance as advocates for rights in mental health known and are taking part in meetings with Assemblyman Felix Ortiz in an effort to help restore the rights and dignity of New Yorkers.

From the Legislative Gazette:

Bill opponents, such as We The People, a group describing themselves as survivors of psychiatric atrocities in the mental health system, said this bill would extend the reach of the law to further encroach upon the civil rights of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds unfairly labeled as “mentally ill.” Especially, they said, because it removes a provision that requires a physician to testify at the court hearing.

We The People want another woman to be remembered besides Kendra — Esmin Elizabeth Green, a mother of six who suffered from depression. She collapsed on the waiting room floor of the psychiatric ward in Kings County Hospital Center in June 2008. She died soon after, unattended and unnoticed by hospital staff.

This incident is just one example of the mistreatment of the mentally ill, law opponents say, because the assisted outpatient treatment system amounts to coercion, oppression and “torture.”

I’m not sure why the author felt the need to put torture in quotes. It reads like undue editorializing to me — as if to say it’s a stretch to call it torture. There’s a reason there’s a survivor movement and it’s not because the system has a healthy way of dishing out a healthy version of care. These drugs wreak havoc on your body, alter your mind and take you over in so many instances and in so many ways.Of course, once you become someone for whom force is considered an option, these things are just details, secondary to your being kept under control. Force does something sinister that rights and law can’t quite touch. Where you were once a person worthy of care, you become a problem to be solved.

Lauren Tenney, a coordinator of We The People, said, “They designed this [assisted outpatient treatment] to make it sound nicer. It was designed to fool the public to make people think it stops people from killing people, but they’re just getting drugs and no support. The research is entirely flawed.”

AOT should be referred to as IOC, she said, involuntary outpatient commitment.

She said the law is coercive and denies people their civil rights because it forces people into taking psychotropic drugs without their consent and does not provide the proper therapeutic support.

“I’ve seen people tortured and dead from their medication,” said Tenney.

If you have something to say, sign on to add your name and voice to the action We the People are taking. Contact Assemblyman Ortiz directly. Time is limited. Do you really want the kind of guy who wants to ban salt in restaurants making decisions regarding your mental health rights? Probably not, but that’s the situation. Don’t let it happen while you sit quietly. If you think you’re out of reach because you don’t live in NY, think again. Forced treatment laws are being introduced or strengthened all over. This is not just an issue of mental health rights but basic human rights and civil liberties. Drugging to prevent crime? That’s one step too far and a decade too long.

May 7, 2010 at 9:41 am 1 comment

MDRI Releases Report on Rotenberg Center

Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) whose simple slogan is “Disability rights are human rights” has issued a report on the abuses at Judge Rotenberg Center calling on the Special Rapporteur, The Obama Administration and the Department of justice in their effort to put a stop to the establishment’s longstanding abuses against children and adults in their alleged “care”.

You may remember my posting about JRC in the past. The abuses that occur there are astounding and I and many others are left wondering how such abuses can carry on without any outside interference from the governing bodies that are supposed to protect all of our citizens — certainly those among us most vulnerable to mistreatment. In its report MDRI rightfully calls this mistreatment nothing short of torture.

From MDRI’s front page:

Washington, DC – April 29, 2010 – Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) has found children and adults with disabilities tortured and abused at a “special needs” residential facility in Massachusetts and has filed an “urgent appeal” with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to demand the United States government end the torture immediately.
MDRI’s latest report, Torture not Treatment: Electric Shock and Long-Term Restraint in the United States on Children and Adults with Disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC),documents the use of electric shocks on the legs, arms, torsos and soles of feet of people with disabilities – for weeks, months and sometimes years. JRC uses punishments as treatment and US advocates have been trying for decades to close the school and end these practices. The school also uses 4-point restraint boards, tying children to the boards while simultaneously shocking them for hours; mock assaults; food deprivation; shock chairs; isolation and long-term restraint. Residents at JRC are diagnosed with a variety of behavioral, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities such as autism, bi-polar disorder and learning disabilities.
Laurie Ahern, President of MDRI and author of the report, states, “The cruelty perpetrated against children and adults at JRC is psychological and physical abuse, couched in the name of ‘treatment.’ The severe pain and suffering leveled against residents there violates the United Nations Convention against Torture. And to the best of our knowledge, JRC is the only facility of any kind in the US – and perhaps the world –that uses electricity combined with long-term restraint and other punishments to intentionally cause pain to children with behavioral challenges and calls it treatment.”
MDRI calls on the Special Rapporteur, along with the Obama Administration and the Department of Justice, to end the abuses against people with disabilities at JRC. MDRI is an international human rights and advocacy organization dedicated to the rights protection and full participation in society of people with disabilities worldwide. Help us put an end to the torture of children with disabilities in JRC.

I sincerely hope this report and urgent appeal are not falling on deaf ears. MDRI presents a clear opportunity for the system to take a stand on institutional abuse and torture under the pretense of care. We need to stop drawing lines across which we’re willing to allow these things to happen. No perceived mental illness or disability can be allowed to take away our basic human rights. This is their chance to show us that human rights are universal. If they can’t do that, what are they good for?

May 3, 2010 at 10:30 am 1 comment

Judi Chamberlin: Her Life Our Movement

“People labeled with mental disabilities are largely invisible to the wider world. To the extent that they think of us at all, they usually think of us as a problem that somebody has to do something about and not as human beings, individuals, each one of us — deserving of human dignity.”  — Judi Chamberlin

This is a great video created by activist, artist and psychiatric survivor, Leah Harris. I met Leah in Brooklyn at a demonstration and vigil in honor of Esmin Green and in protest of her passing for lack of care in a hospital. Leah immediately impressed me with her outspoken determination and when she’s performing a spoken word piece, she has a gift for getting to the core of what she’s communicating. What I might say in a lengthy rambling post or conversation, she cuts to in a phrase.

Leah’s been bringing that sharpness, conciseness and strength to video editing as well lately. In this short video, she shows viewers what the mental health rights movement is to many of us and what the late Judi Chamberlin is to that movement. You’ll notice I didn’t say was. Anyone who has fought as hard for and had such an impact on such a movement that survives them will always be tied to it. Benjamin Franklin once said something to the effect of, “If you are to be remembered long after you die, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. ” Judi did both. Some day, when we look back on this movement in the same peculiar light of hindsight as we view the fight for black civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights, Judi will stand out as one of its first and strongest figures. In addition to what she did directly and for its own sake, she inspired many — often at times and in places where inspiration was notably absent. I wish I would have been in a position to meet and work alongside her toward our shared purpose. Instead I am blessed to be in the good company of people she affected directly.

Madness Radio: Survivor Spoken Word Leah Harris

Madness Radio: Judi Chamberlin Psychiatric Survivor Movement

March 26, 2010 at 9:45 am

Kate Heffelfinger: From the Workhouse to the State Hospital

In 1917, three years before women’s right to vote was recognized, a group of more than thirty suffragists, members of the National Woman’s Party, were arrested in DC on charges of “obstructing sidewalk traffic,” the latest in a long line of charges against the protesting women. Their real crime, however, was daring to speak up for themselves and their rights — especially when a woman’s role was one of quiet support for a nation newly at war. But how do you support a nation that doesn’t support you? They dared to stand outside the White House with banners asking how long they must wait for liberty. These women wanted more than answers. They wanted — and fought for — their rights and the rights of their countrywomen and if you can’t have your vote in a ballot box, your vote is cast in the streets, in the press and sometimes in a jail cell.

The thirty-three women arrested that day were taken to the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. As protestors returning to the line after a series of unjust arrests and subsequent trips to Occoquan, they were no strangers to the violent and abusive behavior they faced. Many had already been beaten, violently force fed rotten and maggot infested food, denied medical attention and forced to live in unsanitary conditions. Still, little could have prepared them for what has become known as the “Night of Terror” for the appalling treatment it brought them.  By order of Occoquan’s superintendent, as many as forty guards armed with clubs went on a rampage, attacking the jailed and defenseless women. They were dragged, beaten and choked, slammed into the hard iron furnishings of the cells, and chained up — injured and bleeding. One woman suffered a heart attack which was ignored while she saw her compatriot lying unconscious and presumed dead on the floor. Shamefully, it took a night of terror to affect change. When news got out about the nightmare endured at Occoquan, public outrage rose to the point that even President Woodrow Wilson, staunchly opposed to women’s suffrage, started to reverse his position. While he may not have cared about the plight of the women, he was shocked at the events of that night and he was not blind to the outrage of his public. The wheels of our government are slow to move and it took three more years for women to get the vote they never should’ve been made to fight for but it was a turning point and tales of that night are often used to urge women to exercise their right vote.

Miss Kate Heffelfinger after her release from the Occoquan Workhouse.

These were women of conscience and conviction gathering from their varied backgrounds and home towns in a shared purpose. Among them was Miss Kate Heffelfinger. Kate was from Shamokin, PA, less than twenty miles from my own home town. She was an art student and a member of the National Woman’s Party, an instrumental part of the movement. When other groups sought to gain respect and favor by softening their position or putting their fight on hold to support our nation’s war efforts, the National Woman’s Party held fast, challenging the idea of fighting for democracy elsewhere while being deprived of their vote at home. As a member of the party, Kate was no stranger to the injustice our courts could deliver. She was sentenced to jail three times — all for her part in meetings and demonstrations on behalf of women’s right to vote. It seems little is known about her exact role in the movement, aside from her arrests and even less about her life immediately after but we know she stood up with the NWP and demanded her rights, faced down impassioned and violent opposition on the street  and was subjected to the brutality of Occoquan Night of terror. She earned a Jailed for Freedom pin, designed by Alice Paul and given to her by the NWP in a meeting honoring all of the women imprisoned for their actions in the interest equal voting rights. She was a vital part of the movement that won the vote for herself, her sisters in the suffrage movement and every woman in the nation. For that she is not just a part of women’s history but our broader, shared history.

A portrait of Kate Heffelfinger wearing her Jailed for Freedom pin.

Sadly, more seems to be known of her later life. With a history of behavior perceived as bizarre and one drastic action, she lost her hard fought right to vote along with the rest of her rights when she was thrown into a state hospital. From an article in the Daily Item, a local newspaper:

One Shamokin resident who preferred not to be identified said her father delivered animal feed for Hex Warehouse to Heffelfinger’s home on Marshall Street.

“You’d just see a hand come out the door and she’d pay for it,” the woman recalled her father telling her…

James R. Holland, of Shamokin, was an independent contractor hired to clean out Heffelfinger’s home and organize the contents for sale shortly after she was committed to Danville State Hospital. Holland’s father, Richard F. Holland, was an assistant cashier and trust officer of National Dime Bank in Shamokin, which handled the sale.

“She ran around town in dark clothes all the time, picking up junk,” Holland recalled.

“She had every kid in the neighborhood scared to death of her,” his wife, Phyllis, said. “She looked like a witch.”

Her outwardly strange behavior may have earned her the name Crazy Katie but I have to wonder what it takes to be called crazy in a place as strange as Shamokin. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that Shamokin is a depressed mining town with an odd and almost fictional Flannery O’Connor quality about it. It’s a very dull gray place full of very colorful characters.  While I don’t know what it was like in Kate’s day, I can say that I’ve scarcely visited Shamokin without seeing someone or something that points to that strangeness. Of course, even then it usually took a little more than scaring kids and collecting junk to lose your freedom to a hospital.

Bernice Shade lives in Heffelfinger’s home today, and lived next door to her before Heffelfinger was sent to Danville State Hospital after throwing a rocking chair through Shade’s front window. Shade and her husband, Bill, were at a movie at the time. Mrs. Shade’s mother was watching their children when someone knocked at the door.

“She looked out from the upstairs window and saw it was Crazy Katie. That’s what they called her,” Shade said.

Afraid, her mother decided to stay inside and hope Heffelfinger would go away.

That’s when Heffelfinger threw the chair through the front window, shouting, “He’s raping his daughter!”

Shade said: “My daughter was screaming because she was getting her hair washed, and you know how little kids hate to get their hair washed.”

The police were called, and Heffelfinger was taken away.

It was just that simple. A woman misinterpreting a child’s screams of protest is “taken away” to spend her days in a state hospital. Some terrible things happen to children in this world when people don’t listen and if we know nothing else about Kate, she was not a woman to sit quietly by. For that she was repaid with the 1950s version of psychiatric care. Sure, she was mistaken and should have been made to pay for any repairs, even a fine, but to be incarcerated in a state hospital for the rest her days was truly an injustice and make no mistake about it — even in a hospital — it’s incarceration. If the door locks behind you and you don’t have the key, if someone else controls whether and when you come and go, it’s incarceration. A woman of strength and conviction lost her autonomy that day. She lost the kind of freedom that not only defined her but helped us define ourselves.

When she was taken away, her belongings which told so much about her were sold and trashed. She had the junk she collected over the years mixed in with treasures from her earlier days and without the benefit anyone connected to her overseeing her belongings, surely some important pieces to the puzzle were lost. I would love to know what happened to her Jailed for Freedom pin — a hard earned reminder given only to a few that could so easily have been swept into a box and mistaken for a mere trinket.

Junk and valuables were so intermingled, it was inevitable that some significant items were thrown away.

Holland recalled seeing boxes of linens, rags, and suffrage banners in the attic.

All were trashed.

In a time when the woman’s vote is taken for granted, it’s hard to even grasp the opposition these women faced but it was more than just speaking up until someone finally caved. It was truly a hard fought battle and Kate was a critical part of that battle. It is unfortunate to say that her name has been all but lost to time. A woman whose sacrifice and successful protest were so important to the course of our history should be recognized and honored in history books everywhere along with her sisters in protest yet even lifelong residents of Shamokin have never heard her name, much less her story. For the few who do know of her around here, it may sadly be as Crazy Katie and not Miss Kate Heffelfinger, the bold, young art student who went down to DC to take a stand.

Her story, even mentioning her name, makes me question how much opposition each of us are willing to face down for our convictions, for our rights and for others. What are we willing to endure to be a part of the change we desperately need? It took the Night of Terror to turn things around back then but every night is somebody’s night of terror and, thanks to inaction, the world is slow to change for the better.

Lately, I see myself adopting Kate as sort of a patron saint of my own convictions and I hope to fight as hard as she did in her early days — for myself and for the many who have ended up in a situation like hers in her later days. The roads are newly clear of snow, the days are getting longer and there is little to truly keep us from gathering where we can be heard. Hasn’t it long been time for us to cast our votes in the streets?

• • •

Library of Congress: Kate Heffelfinger

Library of Congress: Photographs from the record of the National Woman’s Party

March 13, 2010 at 10:56 am

Defending a Diagnosis

When I first heard that the Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis was going to be dissolved and absorbed into the autism spectrum disorders, my first thought was that people with the Asperger’s diagnosis were not going to be pleased. As it turns out, I was right. Aspies, a name many with the diagnosis have adopted, have an identity and a community wrapped up in the diagnosis around which many rally in mutual support — a diagnosis that’s been the source of some contention as its legitimacy has been debated and now its existence as a stand-alone disorder is in question. I’m not one for labels, in large part because they tend to be divisive but I firmly believe that we should be able to define ourselves as we see fit and the Aspie community has done just that — or at least they’re trying. In a time when thousands of people are trying to shake off one label or another, Aspies are clinging to theirs. Many diagnosed with Asperger’s fear that their collective identity will suffer a hit, even be lost entirely if they are to be lumped in with the Autism spectrum.

From Lindsey Tanner for the Associated Press:

Some parents say they’d welcome the change, thinking it would eliminate confusion over autism’s variations and perhaps lead to better educational services for affected kids.

But opponents — mostly older teens and adults with Asperger’s — disagree.

Liane Holliday Willey, a Michigan author and self-described Aspie whose daughter also has Asperger’s, fears Asperger’s kids will be stigmatized by the autism label — or will go undiagnosed and get no services at all.

Grouping Aspies with people “who have language delays, need more self-care and have lower IQs, how in the world are we going to rise to what we can do?” Willey said.

With any diagnosis comes assumptions preconceptions and often stigma. You are one of these, therefore I can expect this of you and these are your limitations. That’s the power of labels and that’s why some people are fighting so hard for some measure of control over the labels attached to them. While incorporating the Asperger’s diagnosis into the autism spectrum may have some benefits that are not currently available to those with an Asperger’s label, many disagree on how to amend the situation. Do we change the label or the distribution of services?  And what, if anything, is a reasonable trade-off?

Rebecca Rubinstein, 23, a graduate student from Massapequa, N.Y., says she “vehemently” opposes the proposal and will think of herself as someone with Asperger’s no matter what.

Autism and Asperger’s “mean such different things,” she said.

Yes and no.

Both are classified as neurodevelopmental disorders. Autism has long been considered a disorder that can range from mild to severe. Asperger’s symptoms can vary, but the condition is generally thought of as a mild form and since 1994 has had a separate category in psychiatrists’ diagnostic manual. Both autism and Asperger’s involve poor social skills, repetitive behavior or interests, and problems communicating. But unlike classic autism, Asperger’s does not typically involve delays in mental development or speech.

Aperger’s revolves heavily around social differences and many who embrace the label embrace those differences not as subnormal or abnormal but as very natural and normal leanings and behaviors viewed unfavorably “neurotypicals” (those outside of the autism/Asperger’s umbrella). While some connections may be made based on the many parallels between the two diagnoses, many Aspies fear the distinction in developmental abilities will be lost in the blur created by blending the labels. The change in diagnosis may prove to be a double edged sword in some ways. We tend to see developmental delays (as with autism) as being objective, legitimate and neurologically based while the traits of Asperger’s are primarily behavioral and lend themselves to a more hazy and subjective reading. For many, there is a struggle to link Asperger’s to autism as an established diagnosis while maintaining its distinction as not meaning limited or delayed developmentally. Still for others, especially parents seeking useful services and placement in schools, the question of perception has to be weighed against very real needs which currently hinge on the little numbered code that accompanies every diagnosis in the DSM.

As I’ve said, I’m not one for labels applied by people other than the wearer and I’m inclined to think the whole situation might be better handled if we throw the book out altogether. If the DSM and it’s hairsplitting, mind measuring scales and labels didn’t exist, what choice would we have but to see people as individuals and not as representatives of their limitations — real or perceived? No one should need to take on a label to get the help they need, least of all children in schools and no one should need to cling to a diagnosis because a collective identity rests in it. Autistic people, Aspies, neurotypicals and beyond, we are who we are despite labels, not because of them.

• • •

You may also be interested in:

Psychology Today: What does this change mean? Don’t people have the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome any more? Of course that’s not the case. But let’s look at mental health problems as they are reflected in years of DSM editions…

NPR: Right now, the diagnosis often hinges on a person’s language skills. But that’s pretty subjective and can change as a child grows up, researchers say. “The categories are just not used by clinicians in a reliable fashion,” Lord says. A single category for autism spectrum disorder will let clinicians stop agonizing over which diagnostic category to put someone in…

The image at the top is a still from Adam Elliot’s brilliant film, Mary and Max, featuring the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette. Go watch it.

February 17, 2010 at 9:39 am 7 comments

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