Monday, November 24, 2014
street news, views and stories of justice and injustice
Follow me on Twitter

Search WitnessLA:

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives

Meta

Community Health


Will Board of Supes Vote to Fund Mental Health Diversion?…. & Does CA’s Medicaid Policy Doom More Mentally Ill Patients to Prison? …& Other Stories

July 29th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


WILL THE LA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS STEP UP ON MENTAL HEALTH DIVERSION $$$?

The LA County Board of Supervisors are scheduled to vote at Tuesday’s meeting on a motion that would allocate at least $20 million for the 2014-2015 fiscal year to mental health diversion.

The board was originally scheduled to vote last Tuesday on the motion, which was introduced by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas two weeks ago.

But the vote was delayed, sources told us, because—surprisingly—it was not clear whether the matter had enough support to pass.

The fact that the motion couldn’t count on at least two votes in addition to that of Ridley-Thomas was particularly perplexing since both the county’s chief prosecutor, DA Jackie Lacey, and the man most likely to be the next LA County Sheriff, Long Beach Police chief Jim McDonnell, were unequivocal about their belief that a strong diversion program was essential and that adequately funding such a program was a necessity.

Lacey, in particular, was impassioned when she gave her strongly-worded interim report on the county’s progress in instituting a diversion plan.

“There’s….a moral question at hand in this process,” Lacey said to the supervisors. “Are we punishing people for simply being sick? Public safety should have a priority, but justice should always come first. If you are in a mental state that you hurt others, then the justice system has to do what it can to protect the public. but there are many who do not fall into that category. When we over incarcerate those…We merely act on fear and ignorance…”

McDonnell had issued his own statement the day before Lacey’s report calling on the county to “…fund and promote an effective network of treatment programs for the mentally ill which will provide them with the support, compassion and services they need to avoid our justice system.”

To WitnessLA he added, “I think what we do here will be watched carefully by other jurisdictions across the state, and really across the country.”

It was rumored that some of the supervisors were worried about the motion’s price tag, even though the proposed $20 million is a modest amount of money when compared to the $$$ now expended unnecessarily jailing—rather than treating (which costs much less)—nonviolent mentally ill inmates and then seeing a high percentage of those same inmates return time after time.

It is “the common sense solution,” wrote So Cal ACLU’s legal director, Peter Eliasberg, in his letter to the individual board members urging them to support the motion to “set aside funding so that it is available when Jackie Lacey provides her comprehensive blueprint to the board in September.”

Lacey put the matter in even stronger terms when she was interviewed for Monday’s news broadcast on Al Jazeera America. “….I am determined that we are going to lead this cause,” she said of the mental health diversion effort. “My dream is that we’ll be able to close down some wings of the jail.”

Moreover, as Eliasberg also noted, a robust program will likely go a long way to satisfy the scathing compliance letter issued in early June by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that “…serious deficiencies in the mental health care delivery system remain and combine with inadequate supervision and deplorable environmental conditions to deprive prisoners of constitutionally-required mental health care.”

Now we await the board’s vote. Let us hope it is a wise one.


AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF THE COST/BENEFIT OF MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT VERSUS LOCK UP….A NEW STUDY SUGGESTS STATE MEDICAID POLICIES RESULT IN MORE MENTALLY ILL GOING TO JAIL AND PRISON

According to a just-released study from USC’s Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, people suffering from schizophrenia are more likely to end up in prison in states like California, which have tight Medicaid policies requiring an extra, supposedly cost-cutting step in approval when deciding which antipsychotic drugs can be given a patient in need.

A story in USC News explains how this works:

Some health plans require an extra approval step before tests or treatments can be ordered for patients. This step – called prior authorization – is intended to encourage physicians to select cost-effective options by requiring justification for the selection of more expensive options. Likewise, prior authorization policies adopted by state Medicaid programs aim to reduce costs associated with some medications, especially those drugs used to treat schizophrenia. However, an unintended consequence of these policies may be that more mentally ill patients are being incarcerated, raising questions about the cost effectiveness of these formulary restrictions.

In the study published July 22 in The American Journal of Managed Care, researchers found that states—like California—requiring this prior authorization for what are termed “atypical antipsychotics” had a whopping 22 percent increase in the likelihood of imprisonment for schizophrenics and others, compared with the likelihood in a state without such a requirement.

Here’s more from USC News.

“This paper demonstrates that our policies around schizophrenia may be penny wise and pound foolish,” said Dana Goldman, director of the Schaeffer Center. “Limiting access to effective therapy may save states some Medicaid money in the short run, but the downstream consequences – including more people in prisons and more criminal activity – could be a bad deal for society.”

Yep. And, just so we’re clear, balking at the $20 million price tag to fund an adequate diversion program for LA County is also exactly that: penny wise and pound foolish.

We’re just saying.


LAPD PATROLLING CITY WITH “GHOST CARS?”

As the LAPD inspector general investigates the allegation that some high level department supervisors have been falsely inflating the reported numbers of officers on patrol under their watch, the police union—the LAPPL—which evidently flagged the practice to begin with, has confirmed that there are indeed reportedly “ghost cars” on patrol. (Here’s an LAPPL video that attributes the drop in patrols to budget cuts.)

KPPC’s Erika Aguilar has that story. Here’s a clip:

….Union officials, who submitted the complaint, refer to the patrol vehicles that are not on the street when they are reported to be as “ghost cars.”

The investigation began when union officers complained to the Los Angeles Police Commission and the inspector general about patrol officers who were supposed to be assigned to light or desk duty because of an injury or other condition but are asked to sign in to work as if they were in a patrol car.

LAPD Detective David Nunez, a delegate for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said he complained to the police commission and the inspector general, saying it’s “unsafe for the community and the officers.”

POST SCRIPT: Allegations of similar “ghost patrols” have repeatedly surfaced among our sources in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. The reports come from both the unincorporated areas of LA County and some of the contract cities.


MORE FROM THE NY TIMES ON MARIJUANA, SPECIFICALLY THE RACIAL INJUSTICE OF WEED ARRESTS

After the New York Times’ Sunday editorial calling for marijuana to be legalized, the paper has continued to make the case in a series of editorials on the matter, the newest being this one by Jesse Wagman on the shameful racial inequities in marijuana arrests and convictions.

Here’s a clip:

America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.

In October 2010, Bernard Noble, a 45-year-old trucker and father of seven with two previous nonviolent offenses, was stopped on a New Orleans street with a small amount of marijuana in his pocket. His sentence: more than 13 years.

At least he will be released. Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man, was arrested in December 1993, for participating (unknowingly, he said) in the purchase of a five-pound brick of marijuana. Because he had two prior nonviolent marijuana convictions, he was sentenced to life without parole.

Outrageously long sentences are only part of the story. The hundreds of thousands of people who are arrested each year but do not go to jail also suffer; their arrests stay on their records for years, crippling their prospects for jobs, loans, housing and benefits. These are disproportionately people of color, with marijuana criminalization hitting black communities the hardest.

NOTE: Blacks and whites use marijuana at comparable rates. Yet in all states but Hawaii, blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana offenses. In California, for example, blacks are more than twice as likely as whites (2.2 times) to be arrested. In nearby Nevada, the discrepancy is double that with blacks 4.5 times as likely to be arrested than whites.

Posted in ACLU, Board of Supervisors, Community Health, District Attorney, health care, jail, Jim McDonnell, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LAPD, LAPPL, LASD, Marijuana laws, mental health, Mental Illness, race, race and class | 3 Comments »

The Cost of Trauma & Tales of Resiliance

March 14th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


In the late 1990s, a couple of researchers named Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda
conducted a landmark study that examined the effects of adverse childhood experiences—which they named ACEs. These ACEs included abuse, neglect, domestic violence and family dysfunction, among other issues. Interestingly, the study involved 17,000 mainly white, mostly well-educated, middle class people in San Diego, not those living in high violence areas. Felitti and Anda were surprised when they found a significant connection between the level of adversity faced and the incidence of various health and mental/emotional and social problems.

Further research found that kids with high ACE scores were far more likely to be suspended from school, and or to get into trouble in other ways.

Over the last 10 years, related studies conducted by some of the nation’s top trauma experts began to find that as many as one-third of children living in our country’s violent urban neighborhoods have experienced sufficient family and/or environmental trauma to have PTSD at a rate than that was greater than that reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of those studies involved middle school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

For school age kids, PTSD can mimic attention-deficit disorder, with the same lack of concentration, poor grades and inability to sit still.

Not surprisingly, kids suffering from intense trauma—whether measured as ACEs or PTSD—often wind up in the juvenile justice system.

According to the National Center for Mental Health and Justice, youth in the juvenile justice system are 8 times more likely to suffer from PTSD than kids in their communities.

The prevalence of PTSD is higher among incarcerated female adolescents (49%) than among incarcerated male adolescents (32%), and 8 times higher than among youths in the community.

For too long, we have ignored the effects of trauma on the mental and emotional states of kids and adults when we design public policy.

Fortunately, that attitude is beginning to change.


TRAUMA & RESILIENCE: TUNE IN!

With the above in mind, at 1 pm on Monday, March 17, The California Endowment is hosting an afternoon long program called “Health Happens with Everyday Courage” to explore community-based solutions for building resilience—in individual and the community itself—to the chronic stress and trauma that plagues many California neighborhoods.

Daily stress is normal, but traumatic stress—especially without the right support, can produce PTSD plus the risk of a range of physical and socio-emotional health problems.

Monday’s event is sold out. (WLA will be there and will report back.)

But you can live stream all or part of Everyday Courage

HOWEVER, IF YOU WANT TO LIVE STREAM YOU NEED TO SIGN UP HERE.

We strongly recommend you check it out.

In the meantime, take a look at this story written by Fania Davis for Yes! Magazine about how some Oakland classrooms are trying healing instead of punishment for traumatized kids who act out.

Posted in Community Health, juvenile justice, School to Prison Pipeline, Trauma | No Comments »

More on That Calderon Corruption Case—involving FBI Stings, Many Millions in Double Billing, and Fake Film Companies

February 24th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


California State Senator California Senator Ronald Calderon
was taken into custody Monday morning after surrendering to federal authorities to be arraigned Monday afternoon on 24 counts that include corruption, mail fraud, wire fraud, bribery, conspiracy, money laundering….and more.

Thomas Calderon, the former speaker of the California state assembly, and Ron Calderon’s brother, surrendered this past Friday when federal charges against both men were announced by U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte.

As you may know by now, Ron Calderon is accused of being involved in two elaborate schemes in which he allegedly solicited and accepted around $100,000 in cash bribes along with trips to Las Vegas, expensive dinners, and gratis stays at golf resorts, plus a couple of high-paying jobs for his son and his daughter (requiring little or no work). In return Calderon allegedly exerted influence on state legislation that was favorable to those doing the bribing.

In one of the bribery set-ups that resulted in the charges against Calderon and his brother, the state senator allegedly took money and favors from a guy named Michael Drobot, the former owner of Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, which is a major provider of two kinds of expensive and delicate spinal surgeries that are often billed to workers’ compensation programs. (Drabot has accepted a plea agreement and is cooperating with the feds.)

The California law that Calderon reportedly worked to keep on the books (it has since been repealed), allowed a hospital to essentially bill twice for an expensive piece of hardware used in the surgeries. (First the hospital got to bill workers comp for the full cost of the surgery—which amounted to a 20 percent more than the facility would have gotten if it was being paid under Medicare. Then it got to bill all over again for the hardware—the average price of which, was already paid for in the original billing).

In the companion case filed on Friday, Drobot admitted that his hospital exploited this law, which was known as the “spinal pass-through,” law, by billing insurance providers at highly inflated prices for the device in question that had been bought from shell companies that Drobot controlled.

“Drobot allegedly bribed Ron Calderon so that he would use his public office to preserve this law that helped Drobot maintain a long-running and lucrative health care fraud scheme,” said the US Attorney’s office in one of its official statement.

In addition, Drobot had reportedly been paying kickbacks to doctors and chiropractors who, in return, recommended to what would amount to thousands of patients that they have their pricey surgery at Drobot’s Long Beach hospital, even if they lived a hundred or more miles away from Long Beach, and there was perfectly appropriate facility far closer to their homes.

“The co-conspirators lined their pockets by ripping off insurance companies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” said California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.


THE AFFIDAVIT AND THE STING

The charges against the Calderons were, to a great extent, previewed last October when reporters from Al Jazeera America managed to get their hands on a sealed 125-page federal affidavit that was used to get a judge to sign off on the FBIs raid of Calderon’s office some months earlier.

The affidavit (which was redacted by Al Jazeera to block out the identities of the undercover FBI agents involved in a sting against Calderon) is replete with lots of alleged dialogue between Calderon and the three FBI undercovers, who were posing as the head of a new (and fake) LA film company, the film company’s money man, and the film guy’s good-looking girlfriend, who was in need of a job. Calderon allegedly provided said girlfriend employment on the state’s dime—until such time as the fake film guy “was no longer with” his fake girlfriend. (Nope. Not making this last part up.) Oh, yes, and Calderon allegedly solicited and accepted bribes from the undercover FBI agents in return for pushing legislation that would be favorable to their “film company.”

US Attorney Birotte looked grim as he talked to reporters on Friday about the case against the high-living Calderon brothers. “Holding elected office means accepting the public trust…” said Birotte. “And the vast majority of officeholders do so with dignity, honor and the well-being of their constituents. When you selfishly line your pockets, it’s up to us to take steps to hold these individuals accountable.”

Indeed.

Posted in Community Health, consumer affairs, crime and punishment, FBI | No Comments »

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman—and the Interweave of Fear, Heartbreak and Injustice that Haunts the Verdict’s Aftermath

July 15th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon


Since the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman was announced just a few minutes
after 7 pm, Pacific Time on Saturday night, there is no shortage of opinions on what the verdict meant and did not mean.

Of all that we have seen and read since Saturday night’s announcement by the all-female jury, among the essays and analyses that we feel adds the most to the collective dialogue are the following:


it’s worth reading everything on the topic by writer Jeleni Cobb who covered the trial and its aftermath for the New Yorker.

Here’s a clip from his essay about Day 10 of the trial:

Amid their frustratingly uneven presentation, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda and the rest of the prosecution have pegged their second-degree murder charges largely on the idea that Martin was losing the fight on February 26th of last year, that he shouted for help, and that Zimmerman, a vigilante would-be cop, shot and killed him anyway. In plotting their route to conviction, they necessarily bypass another set of questions. What if he wasn’t losing the fight? What if Zimmerman is the one who called for help? What if Martin did swing first? And, most crucially, is an unarmed black teen-ager ever entitled to stand his ground?

The answers to these questions have bearing that is more social than legal, but they’re inescapable in understanding how we got here in the first place and what this trial ultimately means.


Also good is this column by our usual go-to-guy from The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen. Here’s a clip from his take on the trial and the verdict, and the oceans of fears, heartbreak and knowledge of our still-tragically race-fractured nation that they triggered.

Of course the deadly meeting last year between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman had at its core a racial element. Of course its tragic result reminds us that the nation, in ways too many of our leaders refuse to acknowledge, is still riven by race. The story of Martin and Zimmerman is the story of crime and punishment in America, and of racial disparities in capital sentencing, and in marijuana prosecutions, and in countless other things. But it wasn’t Judge Debra Nelson’s job to conduct a seminar on race relations in 2013. It wasn’t her job to help America bridge its racial divide. It was her job to give Zimmerman a fair trial. And she did.

[LARGE SNIP]

Without a confession, without video proof, without a definitive eyewitness, without compelling scientific evidence, prosecutors needed to sell jurors cold on the idea of Zimmerman as the hunter and Martin as the hunted. But when the fated pair came together that night, in those fleeting moments before the fatal shot, the distinctions between predator and prey became jumbled. And prosecutors were never able to make it clear enough again to meet their burden of proof. That’s the story of this trial. That explains this result. That’s why some will believe to their own dying day that George Zimmerman has just gotten away with murder.


And finally there is Monday’s essay by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Below is a clip from the opening to get you started, but it demands a full reading:

In trying to assess the the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicted truths emerge for me. The first is that is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter. The second is the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice. In examining the first conclusion, I think it’s important to take a very hard look at the qualifications allowed for aggressors by Florida’s self-defense statute:

Read the rest. It is painful. And essential.


PS: Oh, yes, and the most intelligent, insightful, literate rant on the verdict and its meaning comes from Charles Pierce, Esquire’s political columnist/blogger. (Charlie Pierce rants so the rest of us don’t have to.)


Demonstrators on the 10 freeway, Skipp Townsend of 2nd Call, July 14, 2013

Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, Community Health, Courts, crime and punishment, criminal justice, race, racial justice | 3 Comments »

Racially Biased Justice in the News: Weed Arrests, NYC’s Stop & Frisk….and a Happy Dad’s Day Story

June 17th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon



It’s been three and a half years since Michelle Alexander’s essential book, The New Jim Crow, appeared in book stores
and laid out, with an avalanche of unignorable facts, her thesis that Jim Crow and racial segregation have been replaced by a racially biased justice system where discrimination masquerades as public safety with shattering effects.

The following stories that hit the news recently are examples of the problem that Alexander pointed out, each with their own complexities.


WEED AND RACE

Earlier this month we wrote about the ACLU’s report showing the racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession.

Following up on that report, the NY Times ran an editorial over the weekend urging law enforcement, both on a state and local level, to do away with the kind of arrest policies that are the most likely to produce these disasterously biased outcomes that the report outlines.

Here’s a clip:

Researchers have long known that African-Americans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though studies have repeatedly shown that the two groups use the drug at similar rates.

Of the more than eight million marijuana arrests made between 2001 and 2010, nearly 90 percent were for possession. There were nearly 900,000 marijuana arrests in 2010 — 300,000 more than for all violent crimes combined.

Nationally, African-Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites. The disparity is even more pronounced in some states, including Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, where African-Americans are about eight times as likely to be arrested. And in some counties around the country, blacks are 10, 15 or even 30 times as likely to be arrested.

This nationwide pattern is evident in all kinds of communities — urban and rural, wealthy and low income, in places where the African-American populations are large and in places where they are small.

As the report notes, police officers who are targeting black citizens and black neighborhoods are turning “a comparatively blind eye to the same conduct occurring at the same rates in many white communities.”


FEDS MAY STEP IN TO FORCE CHANGE IN NYC’S STOP-AND-FRISK POLICY

As the more than five-year-old lawsuit challenging New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy finally comes to a close, the Department of Justice has told the federal judge overseeing the case she has the DOJ’s permission (read: encouragement) to slap the city with federal oversight if she rules its actions violate the Constitution.

Should that come about, it will be met with much resistance by such people as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly who both say that the policy has made the city safer and has lowered the kind of serious crime that affects minorities in the city disproportionately.

Delvin Barrett and Sean Gardiner of the Wall Street Journal, among others, have the story that will continue to unfold this week. Here’s a clip:

The New York Police Department faces the prospect of a federal monitor for the first time in its history, after the Justice Department issued an opinion in a civil-rights trial concerning the city’s policy of conducting street stops.

The tactic, known as stop-and-frisk, has received intense scrutiny in New York, where officers have conducted more than five million such stops in the past decade. While 52% of the city’s population is black or Hispanic, those groups make up 85% of those stopped, according to NYPD data.

Officers can stop, question and sometimes frisk people on the street when they have reasonable suspicion of a crime. But three federal class-action lawsuits have questioned whether New York’s execution of the tactic violates the U.S. Constitution.

In an opinion filed Wednesday night, the Justice Department said U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin could impose an outside monitor on the NYPD if she finds that officers violated the law in conducting stops. The opinion is tied to the first of the three cases to go to trial. Judge Scheindlin hasn’t yet ruled.


AND NOW ON A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AND MUCH CHEERIER TOPIC…

NICKERSON GARDENS STARTS BRAND NEW FATHER’S DAY TRADITION TO FOCUS ON UNDERAPPRECIATED DADS

Nickerson Gardens is a community where, in the past, too many kids have been wounded by the lack of adequate fathering. Now, however, a growing number of men in Nickerson are working hard to be the kind of fathers to their own kids that they never had. Sunday, on Father’s Day, the community acknowledged those dads with what organizers hope will be a yearly celebration.

KPCC’s Erica Aguilar has the story.

Here’s a clip:

For the first time, families from Nickerson Gardens housing development gave a formal ‘Thank You’ to the dads in the community at Sunday’s inaugural Father’s Day luncheon.

“In these communities, the fathers, they just feel nobody kind of care about them,” said Donny Joubert, who organized the event.

Joubert works for the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, which manages the development. When you talk to guys at Nickerson Gardens, they refer to him as “Uncle Donny.” Joubert said he relates to the young fathers; he grew up there and is a dad himself.

“We got a bunch of young men that we know that is struggling, job to job, dealing with situations at home, but still trying to be there for their kid,” he said.

The event was called “Honor Thy Father.” About two-dozen dads were showered with ‘man bags,’ as one father called it. The gift bags were filled with some dad essentials like shiny silver watches, shaving kits, and of course white socks.

“Nobody never do nothing for the fathers, so this is a great,’ said Kevin White, a single father, whose sons are 17 and 18 years old.

White said he and his ex-girlfriend share custody of their teenage sons after they decided a long time ago that their relationship just wasn’t working. The towering man behind a dark pair of sunglasses twists a long silver chain hanging around his neck. White said that his 18-year old son starts his first year at Virginia Tech in August…..


PROJECT FATHERHOOD

According to the U.S. Census Bureau 24 million kids in America-–one out of every three—grow up with their biological fathers absent from thier homes.

That’s why fledgling events like the one above, and programs like Jordan Downs’ Project Fatherhood, are so very important—-and are indeed a cause for celebration.

NOTE: Project Fatherhood (which we reported on here) was featured at the Fatherhood Solutions conference held Friday and sponsored by the Children’s Institute.


Posted in children and adolescents, Community Health, law enforcement, race, race and class, racial justice | No Comments »

Rebooting Fatherhood in Jordan Downs

March 12th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon



REBOOTING FATHERHOOD IN THE PROJECTS
As Jordan Downs heads for a massive rebuild, how the men in one unique local support group may help heal their long-troubled community—as they heal themselves


Michael Cummings—a large, charismatic man known by most simply as Big Mikehas been through a wider variety of stages in his life than most. He’s been an LA gang member, been shot, sold drugs, been to prison.

Now he’s an ordained pastor and a recognized community leader who spends most of his waking hours working to heal the same community that, as a young man, he and his friends helped to break.

For instance, on weekdays, Cummings oversees a program called Safe Passages where he, and the team he has organized, get kids to and from Jordan High school safely so they don’t get robbed, jumped, beaten up…or worse—and thus stop going to school, or drop out altogether.

Then as a pastor, in addition to his spiritual work, he officiates at funerals when someone is killed by neighborhood violence, and helps the families of the dead find affordable ways of burying their loved ones. He helps struggling young men in the community to find jobs, and, when he is able, interrupts violence on the street when he sees it about to occur.

And, since the fall of 2011, Big Mike has run something called Project Fatherhood, in which men from the Jordan Downs housing project (and beyond), meet every Wednesday to teach each other, and themselves, how to be fathers.

“See, most of the men in the group never had fathers,” Cummings told me. “Or if they did have a father in the home, he was usually was doing drugs or an alcoholic, or abusive, or both. So those men never had anyone show them what it means to be a parent,” said Cummings, at least not a male parent.

“A mother can teach a lot of things. But she can’t teach the same things that a father can teach,” he said. “She can’t teach a boy to be a man.”

It is that lack of a father that often sends young men into gangs, said Cummings (a fact that I had observed over and over again in my own years of gang reporting.)

“Take me,” said Cummings. “My father wasn’t there. He came around every so often, but even then, he mostly talked to my sister.” Cummings paused. “For a long time, everything I did”—the gangster activities, the drug sales, the flashy accoutrements—”all that I did to show my father I didn’t need him. If he had a Cadillac, I wanted two Cadillacs. That’s how I got back at him. That’s how I showed him he didn’t matter, that I could become a man without him.”

A lot of the men in the group are like him, Cummings said. But they are also men who wanted desperately not to continue the cycle.


MEN WITHOUT FATHERS

Project Fatherhood was begun with a grant from the Children’s Institute, administered by The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). For years one of LA’s poorest and dangerous public housing complexes, Jordan Downs is now scheduled for an ambitious $1 billion reconstruction to begin in 2014, and HACLA is trying to institute programs and activities that will help improve the personal lives of the residents, during the time in which their residences are being so dramatically transformed. With all this in mind, the CI people saw Jordan Downs as an ideal site for a new program to “help reengage urban fathers.” Some years before, Children’s Institute had noted that “fathers were most often left out of programs designed to strengthen troubled low-income urban families.” Thus Project Fatherhood was created. It was a program that CI had already tried out in other locations, but there seemed to be few better laboratories for a new iteration of the program than historically dysfunctional and violence-haunted Jordan Downs—especially when it was on the cusp of such a massive change.

When HACLA began looking for someone to launch and run the experimental parenting group, Cummings—along with another friend, Andre Christian— already had a once-a-month casual Saturday barbecue/talk session going in Jordan Downs. The way it worked was as follows: using the food as an excuse, guys from the projects would drift over the barbecue area, at which point Cummings and Christian would engage them in conversation on a variety of topics, parenting prominently among them.

And so when Cummings and Christian heard that HACLA was looking for people to submit proposals to run some kind of new fatherhood program…. “We went for it,” he said.

The twosome got the nod—which meant a small grant for the first year’s expenses, plus the requirement that they hire a master social worker.

UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap, who already knew Big Mike from her gang work, agreed to fulfill that social worker role. Leap is an expert on gangs, at risk youth, and community violence reduction (among other specialities). “But I started out as a social worker in Watts in 1978 and into the ’80′s,” Leap said. “So for me it was like coming back home.”


REBOOTING FATHERHOOD

The combination worked. A few men out of Cummings and Christian’s Saturday barbecue group came and the word spread. Sometimes the meetings held inside Jordan Downs on Wednesday afternoons are crowded. Other times, according to Leap, it’s down to the core group of 15 or so men. There are a few hispanic men, but most are black, all are impoverished.

All want to be better fathers.

The topics discussed vary widely. “We teach them how to go to school for their kids to talk to the school principal or the counselors,” said Cummings. “We deal with racial and emotional issues. With talk about how to get jobs to support their families. We talk about what it means to be there for your kids.”

Some issues turned out to be controversial and difficult, explained Leap, like the night they talked about corporal punishment—hitting your kids. “They fought me on that,” Leap said. “It got down and dirty. They kept saying, ‘You don’t understand…’ They were worried if they didn’t hit their kids, they would make their kids weak.”

Still, in the days and weeks after the fractious spanking and hitting discussion, some of the group members told Leap individually how they were struggling with the issue, and that they had decided no more physical punishment. “But they never said it to the group.”

The night that got to her most, Leap said, “was the night the men talked openly about how they wished they’d had fathers. I’d heard it before from other men, and from homeboys. And, in my work, believe me, I’m on intimate terms the father wound, and all that.” But she’d never quite heard the level of anguish around the subject that she heard that night.


GROWTH BEGETS GROWTH

Now the program is in its second year, with a brand new and larger 2-year grant that will keep it going for at least a third year. While the core of Project Fatherhood has remained the same, the positive outcomes it is producing have widened beyond solely parenting. For example, in addition to the fathering talk and training, Cummings and company have gotten some of the men into a good construction apprenticeship/training program, at the end of which, “they have OSHA cards.”

Plus, empowered by their involvement in the group, the men have started extending themselves to become more involved in helping their communities, said Leap.

She described one awful night last June when a 24-year-old father and his 1-year old son were shot in what appeared to be a gang shooting gone awry. The father lived, but the little boy died. Although the wounded dad wasn’t part of the Fatherhood group, Leap said, the group nevertheless texted each other back and forth and “organized a peace march, and marched throughout the neighborhood,” to show the sorrowing young father their support.

Another night, Cummings said, a young father age 20 or 21 came to the group and said he had an autistic child and really needed some help. “Two other fathers in the group spoke up and said that they also had autistic kids, and began talking to him about all the things he would need to do.”

Amazed by the unexpected wisdom he suddenly saw exchanged, the incident became one of Cummings’ favorites.

On still another occasion, the Project Fatherhood guys attended a meeting that had been scheduled to discuss concerns about the Jordan Downs reconstruction. In response to issues expressed by the crowd at the meeting, plus additional community lobbying and pressure, it was decided that 30 percent of the construction jobs created by the project had to go to locals. Cummings tells how the fathers were jazzed to be a part of the community activism.

“You can see the growth in all these men,” he said. “It’s so strong!”


REPLICATION

In addition to continuing to grow and strengthen Jordan Down’s Project Fatherhood, Cummings believes that the project can and should be replicated. “We’re to the point, that we could take this project anywhere. You’d have to tailor it for the individual communities, but the basics are there.”

And the need is great, he said.

“In Jordan Downs, Project Fatherhood was basically something that’d been waiting to happen. But the potential was there. The need was there.”

Leap agreed. “This is an example of a community really doing for itself. And that’s exactly how you affect real change.”


POST SCRIPT: THE FATHER OF ALL SUPPORT GROUPS

A few weeks ago, the LA Times Kurt Streeter published a wonderful story on Project Fatherhood that gets deeper into what the meetings are actually like than what we have here. It’s a must read.

Below, for example, is a clip from the middle of Streeter’s story in which he tells of the night the men talked about discipline:

One evening there’s a discussion that might take place at a parenting group in a faraway suburb: where to get good baby formula, how best to bottle feed, the importance of being open and honest. The next week the talk is more particular to Jordan Downs: raising families on welfare; keeping kids from being killed by gangs from nearby neighborhoods; maintaining dignity when you’re a father struggling to find work.

The two topics discussed with the most passion? The men’s mothers and the virtues of old-fashioned discipline.

“Good Lord, we love our mamas,” says one of the men on a midsummer night. But it’s complicated. Some of their mothers were drug addicts. Some had dangerous boyfriends or were quick-tempered.

“You all remember mine,” McGruder says. “Anyone in these projects needed anything when they were boys, they could come to her.”

The men agree. Everyone remembers Miss McGruder.

“But oh Lord, she laid some whuppings on me,” he says. “All of our mothers did. That discipline is what’s missing with our kids these days.”

There are cackles of laughter. Children in the neighborhood, one father argues, “need to learn fear.” Without fear they can become teens who talk back to the police. If that happens, the police will surely jail, beat or even kill them.

The reasoning hangs in the air, solemn, serious, seen as fact. “Tell it!”

Leap, married to a former LAPD commander who once patrolled Jordan Downs, tries to get the group to consider alternatives to corporal punishment. Some of the men say she’s just plain wrong. Talking and “time-outs” might work in wealthy white neighborhoods, but not here.

Sensing she’s going to lose this debate, at least for now, Leap reminds the men of how the law defines child abuse. “No closed fists, nothing to the head, fellas, nothing.”

Big Mike joins her. “No bruises or cuts. You do that, not only is it wrong, but your kids are gonna be taken by the authorities.”

Be sure to read the rest here.


Posted in Community Health, Gangs | 1 Comment »