Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Iraqi dictator, the “Queen of Mean” and the “Incident Commander”

It's a good thing The New York Times has a brief item about this in its archives, because otherwise nobody who didn't see it would believe me. It was back in 1990, during the run up to the first Gulf War: A full-page ad in the Times under the headline: "An Open Letter to Saddam Hussein from Leona Helmsley."

What was it that placed the late hotel magnate, often described as the "Queen of Mean" at odds with the late Iraqi dictator? Saddam was holding people in Iraq against their will – and then having the effrontery to call them "guests." "I know something about how to treat guests," Helmsley declared in the ad.

I immediately thought of the ad last month, when I read some of the early news accounts about the children of Eldorado. In particular, the ones quoting Kevin Dinnin, President of Baptist Child and Family Services, who served as the "incident commander" in charge of holding more than 400 children in huge "shelters." Here are a few quotes from Commander Dinnin from news accounts of a briefing on April 11:

"We're providing a clean cool safe environment for our guests and that's what I consider them, our guests."…

"I have felt a great deal, frankly, of appreciation from the guests toward me … Particularly with the food, they've basically said 'thank you for your care' and that's very rewarding to me."

"We as an agency believe we should provide the guests whatever clothing they request. If they want black socks, I want the children to have black socks.

"Under the circumstances , these folks are as happy in their environment as they can possibly be."

I was reminded again of these comments after nine mental health professionals, who were brought to the San Angelo shelters by the State of Texas itself, spoke out because they were so appalled at the conditions they saw, and at how CPS treated the children. As noted on this blog earlier, the full stories are in the San Antonio Express News and the Salt Lake Tribune. Here are some excerpts:

From the Tribune:
Children living in crowded quarters that led to upper respiratory illnesses. Youngsters plagued with diarrhea from unhealthy foods they usually did not eat. Distressed mothers enduring widespread rudeness - such as flashlights shined in their faces as they tried to sleep.
Mental health professionals who helped care for FLDS women and children in the weeks after an April raid on the YFZ Ranch describe conditions and treatment they perceived as harsh and unnecessary.
"Never in all my life, and I am one of the older ladies, have I been so ashamed of being a Texan and seeing what and how our government agencies treat people," wrote one employee of Hill Country Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center in an unsigned statement.

(The statements were unsigned because CPS made the workers sign confidentiality pledges. It's not hard to see why.)

And from the Express News, which broke the story:

A few [mental health workers] described tensions quickly developing between the two groups of workers, including threats by CPS to have interfering mental health staffers arrested. …

"I have worked in Domestic Violence/Sexual Abuse programming for over 20 years and have never seen women and children treated this poorly, not to mention their civil rights being disregarded in this manner," one wrote. "It makes us all wonder how safe anyone is who has children." …
"The entire MH support staff was 'fired' the second week; we were sent home due to being 'too compassionate,'" one report stated. …
Many of [the mental health professionals] described child welfare workers as high-handed, rude or uncaring toward the mothers and overzealous in their concerns that they might escape or harm their keepers.
Two of the MHMR workers, however, reported seeing CPS workers treating mothers and children with friendliness and compassion - including one who also reported being threatened with arrest for challenging a decision to separate special needs children from their mothers after they were told earlier in the day that it would not happen.
That worker was among three who reported that CPS workers lied to the mothers; one described it as a tactic to make separating them from their children go easier. Several said the mothers were denied access to their lawyers.
One MHMR worker made a claim almost identical to one appearing on an FLDS Web site after the mothers were given a choice to return to the ranch or stay at a battered women's shelter. Most mothers went to the shelter, "because they were told they would be able to see their children if they did not return to the ranch," the worker reported. At the time the FLDS Web site claimed CPS had told the mothers they stood a better chance of seeing their children if they went to the shelter, a CPS spokesman called the claim "blatantly untrue."
Some of the MHMR workers said the crowded conditions at the shelter allowed upper respiratory infections and chicken pox to spread rapidly and many noted the shelter's other discomforts. One described it as deliberate, a form of coercion to aid the investigation: "The more uncomfortable they were the more CPS thought they would talk."

But none of this has stopped the Baptist Child and Family Services propaganda machine. With all the extra work involved in taking care of all these children, somehow the Director of Communications for BCFS still found the time to write an article for

Church Executive Magazine about the wonderful job they've been doing. Naturally, he liberally larded the story with quotes from his boss, Dinnin – like this one:

"To categorize the sheltering operations as 'highly successful' is a gross understatement," Dinnin added. "To quote Chief Colley of the Governor's Division of Emergency Management, BCFS was the 'rock star' of the San Angelo operation. We do appreciate that -- but being noted for providing 'Best Care for Children' is the highest compliment possible."

And remember, the children are "as happy in their environment as they can possibly be."