On my blog, A Diary of a Mom, I recently wrote the story of a concurrently heartwarming and heartbreaking interaction between my 10-year-old daughter and a homeless woman who was huddled in front of the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street in Boston. In that post I made reference to an article that I'd recently read here on HuffPost about a sheriff in Cook County, Ill.
The sheriff, Tom Dart, is threatening to sue state and local government officials. Why? Because, according to the article, "the county jail is so overwhelmed with people whose offenses are more attributable to mental health issues than criminal impulses that the facility has become a source of mental health care for the city, and he's sick of it."
Dart says that the system "is so screwed up that [he's] become the largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois."
The article goes on to say:
[O]f the 11,000 prisoners detained at Cook County Jail at any given time, Dart estimates that about 2,000 suffer from a serious form of mental illness. At an estimated cost of about $143 per detainee per day, the overflow from the nearby state-run Elgin Mental Health Center, which can handle only 582 patients at a time, stands to put an undue burden on the jail's resources.
ABC Chicago interviewed some of the many repeat offenders who spend time in Dart's jail, several of whom described it as one of their only options for consistent access to mental health care and medication.
"What ends up happening is, there's no safety net to catch them, so they end up committing crimes, getting swept up by the police and coming to jail," jail psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Howard told ABC.
Our nation is at a crossroads. Political rhetoric is as heated as I've ever seen it. "Smaller government!" The candidates scream, to feverish applause. "Personal responsibility! No more entitlements!" they intone to bloodthirsty crowds.
Santorum has laid out his plan for helping those in need in our society. It's brilliant in its simplicity. It's idiocy in practice.
"I'm not going to go out and lay out an agenda about how we're going to transform people's hearts. But I will talk about it," he said. "One of the important things that the President of the United States can do is talk about things that the federal government shouldn't do but talk about what a good society should do."
"If government is going to get smaller, then people have to get bigger. And that means they have to stretch out more, they have to do more things," he said. "But how beautiful is that? How beautiful is that that you're going to have to do more to help those in need in our society?"
Beautiful in its idealism? Yes. Able in any practical sense to keep Tom Dart from being Illinois' largest mental health care provider? Not so much. Just ask the homeless lady huddled by the fence in front of the church.
When I began advocating politically for children with special needs, my autistic daughter Brooke, now almost 9 years old, was just a toddler. Our town's education budget, like so many others around the country, was shrinking dramatically, and tough decisions needed to be made about where the limited monies would be allocated. The arguments that I made to our local officials largely revolved around the fact that providing appropriate support for kids like Brooke was simply the right thing to do.
Within short order, I learned that school boards and government officials are not particularly swayed by "the right thing to do." So I started talking about money.
I told them that we had a choice: either spend some money now in order to enable a generation of kids to participate in and contribute to our society (heaven knows what great things lie beyond our limited imaginations), or pay exponentially more later when we have a generation of adults who are wholly reliant on us because we didn't give them the skills they needed to be even partially self-sufficient when we had the chance. I wondered, though, if that idea was simply too vague to really sink in and impact the political process.
Well, thanks to Sheriff Dart, it's not so vague anymore, is it?
The current crop of candidates is big on Bible thumping. And despite the fact that a host of religious leaders have come together to ask them to cut it out, I'm happy to engage in a little thumping of my own, especially because the following parable from the Gospel of Matthew happens to be the basis for one of my daughter's favorite scenes in her beloved Godspell:
Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"
The King will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
Our kids need support. Many of them always will. And I am determined to ensure that that "support" doesn't come in the form of a 10-year-old girl handing them a couple of dollars on the street.
So when arguments based on compassion seem to fall on deaf ears, or when reminders of our sacred responsibility to care for one another (no matter what the level of need may be) as members of a civilized society go nowhere, and Bible thumpers tell us that individuals and churches will care for those in need, send them this as a reminder that one way or another, we will support those in need. And I can't imagine that anyone thinks that our jails are the best place to do it.