State Sen. Bill Diamond says he thought any problems at the Elan School were resolved before he got there. Some survivors disagree.
|Maine State Sen. Bill Diamond|
Every state legislature has one: the lawmaker who rushes to “blast” the state or local “child welfare” agency after a child “known to the system” dies. Either overtly or by implication the attacks demand that the state move more quickly to take away children and move more slowly, if at all, to reunite foster children with their families.
Local media love it. Soon no story is complete without the obligatory quote from Senator Soundbite. But while they’re making themselves media stars, their statements fan the flames of foster-care panic, encouraging more needless removal, doing enormous harm to the children needlessly removed, and overloading the system – making it even more likely that the next child in real danger will be missed.
That’s not their intent. Senator Soundbite typically believes what s/he says will “save” children. But these crusades have a way of backfiring. Nevertheless, if you’re good enough at it, you can become a national media star – as happened in Oregon.
But I’ve never seen anything quite like what’s happening now in Maine.
In part, this is, once again, a function of the loss of institutional memory in Maine. It is likely that most of the reporters who now rush to quote Maine’s Senator Soundbite – Bill Diamond – don’t know that he once worked for a notorious institution known as Elan School. More important, they may never have heard of the Elan School – it closed in 2011. If they knew, would they be as eager to anoint him their “Godsource”? (That’s the term I use for that one public official or “child advocate” who is quoted in almost every news story and whose words are treated as holy writ.)
So let’s talk about what many Maine journalists may not know.
A brief recap
For most of the past 25 years, Maine embraced a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare. That changed for a few years after a little girl named Logan Marr was taken from her mother because the family’s poverty was confused with neglect and killed by her foster mother, who also was a caseworker for the state “child welfare” agency. A new governor, John Baldacci, demanded a new approach. Maine embraced family preservation and became a national leader in keeping children together safely.
But it was all undermined by another governor - the state’s Trump-before-Trump governor, Paul LePage. He demanded a return to the take-the-child-and-run approach. And when two children died in rapid succession at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, he doubled down. Removals of children into foster care skyrocketed. Of course, that didn’t stop the deaths. On the contrary, there were more, again in rapid succession, in 2021.
But instead of thinking: OK, maybe rushing to tear apart families doesn’t work, the state’s “Child Advocate” Christine Alberi and others are demanding even more steps to tear apart families and keep them apart. They’re getting their way – Maine is taking away children at the highest rate since 1999 – a rate even higher than before Logan Marr died.
Senator Soundbite steps up
But that’s not enough for Alberi - or for Maine’s Senator Soundbite, Bill Diamond.
For example, while proposing to give the take-the-child-and-run crowd everything it wanted – more money and power for Alberi’s office and still another caseworker hiring binge, the state’s current governor, Janet Mills, also proposed spending a few million dollars on programs to help families stay together. Diamond responded by invoking the false claim that family preservation and child safety are at odds. He said the state Office of Children and Family Services – which, again, already is tearing apart families in record numbers
“should be placing the child in the safest place, not necessarily pushing the envelope so it ends up being a reunification. The first priority, it’s been proven time and time again, needs to be where the child will at least be safe.”
This is the mentality that contributed to the death of Logan Marr. It’s been “proven time and time again” to make all children less safe.
Diamond says he’s been in the fight to change Maine’s child welfare system for decades. Maine media have accepted this without question. Story after story has some version of “Sen. Bill Diamond has pushed for reforms to the child welfare agency for the past 20 years.” Or “Diamond has worked on child welfare problems for years, under four different governors.”
But when I checked NCCPR’s comprehensive archive of child welfare system news coverage since 1997, I could find no story mentioning Bill Diamond – until child abuse deaths made headlines in 2018. Of course, it’s possible that during all those previous years, Diamond was working quietly behind the scenes – but that doesn’t seem like his style.
Diamond did write what is apparently a lurid self-published book about child sexual abuse, in which he courageously took a stand firmly against adults raping two-year-olds. The blurb for the book repeatedly emphasizes that he’s going to tell you all the details:
The book may startle and sicken you because of the cold, hard, facts that until now have been hidden from you. Why? to protect you. Real life suffering must be brought to the light of day so the collective "you" demands that it stop - no matter the cost.
But that does not qualify one as an expert in a system in which, in Maine, 96% of children thrown into foster care are placed there in cases where there is no allegation of sexual abuse of any kind.
But perhaps Diamond’s absence from the larger debate all these years is because, for much of the time, he had two other jobs – jobs which you won’t find mentioned in his official biography: Director of Government Relations and Superintendent of Schools for the Elan School.
One might think that someone claiming expertise in child welfare would brag about holding jobs like that. Unless, that is, you know about the Elan School.
Not your average hellholeThere have been a lot of news stories lately about the “troubled teen industry,” the collection of barely-regulated private institutions for children who are supposedly too difficult to handle any other way. Sometimes desperate parents send their children voluntarily, other times they may be sent by state or local juvenile justice or child welfare agencies.
Most of the stories deal with undertrained underprepared overwhelmed staff using excessive force on residents – sometimes with fatal results. Occasionally, there are stories about “fight clubs” in which staff force residents to beat each other up.
But Elan went beyond any of this. At Elan the abuse was not a byproduct of overcrowding or cost-cutting. At Elan abuse was intentional. The torment wasn’t a byproduct of the therapy the torment was the therapy.
Elan started out as a drug treatment facility – modeled on the notorious Synanon (Google it.) Elan adapted the program to the troubled teen market.
Former residents – a better term would be inmates, since there was no escape - repeatedly describe a “Lord of the Flies culture” in which bullying students of lower “rank” was part of the program. Young people would be surrounded by peers and screamed at for hours at a time. Or, as a New York Times story explained: “At Elan, smiling without permission can lead to a session of cleaning urinals with a toothbrush that can last for hours.”
What is mind-boggling is the lengths to which Elan would go to custom-tailor the humiliation to the “offense” – whether or not there really was an offense. Tears stream down the face of a girl wearing a dunce cap as an adult tells her: “99 and nine/tenths percent of the people in this room told you they think you suck as a person, and if they had their way, they’d cut your throat, put you out of your misery, and relieve the human race of having to deal with an ingrate like you!”
When inmates acted "like babies" they were made to wear a diaper and bonnet and carry around a rattle. One girl was forced to wear a ring of tampons around her head. Other inmates were forced to live in a dumpster for two weeks.
Or consider what happened to the youth who simply said it would be a good idea if the unit where he lived could have a dog. For some reason, this was an offense. The punishment: He would be the dog. For days he was forced to wear a dog costume, walk on all fours, eat from a dog dish and speak only by barking - one bark for yes, two for no.
But you have to see Elan to believe it. And you can. Because over the years its co-founder, the late Joe Ricci, welcomed documentary crews. Some of their film is interwoven into a 2017 documentary, The Last Stop, in which survivors tell their stories. It’s available on Amazon Prime, including a free version. Here’s the trailer:
What Elan called “treatment” looks more like emotional waterboarding.
The torment wasn’t only emotional. Ricci admitted that therapy included requiring inmates to beat rule violators with paddles. Ricci called it spanking. The documentary suggests that was an understatement. One survivor says that, over and over, she was spanked until she was black and blue and couldn’t sit down.
Oh, and yes, Elan had its own version of a fight club – but only in the name of therapy. It may have contributed to one resident’s death, though authorities ultimately decided not to press charges.
The fight club, known at Elan as “the ring,” reportedly ended in 2000. But survivors of the program say the emotional torments and punishments continued right up until Elan closed in 2011.
If you’re wondering why parents didn’t simply pull children out – they didn’t know. All mail and all phone calls were censored. Inmates even were forced to write letters telling their parents they were having a wonderful time.
Diamond’s employment at Elan
Maura Curley once worked for Ricci and went on to write a scathing biography of the man – and a scathing expose of Elan. Curley writes that from 1997 until the school closed in 2011 its “Director of Governmental Relations” was Bill Diamond. Its “Superintendent of Schools” also was Bill Diamond. The Lewiston Sun Journal also reports that he held those jobs at Elan. A website that apparently hasn’t been updated for a while still lists Elan and still lists Diamond as its “superintendent of schools.”
Just before taking these jobs, Diamond had been Maine’s Secretary of State. Then, in 2004, he was elected to the State Senate. He’s been there ever since, except for 2012-2014 when term limits prevented him from seeking re-election.
For at least six years while he served in the State Senate, from 2006 through 2011,
Diamond’s financial disclosure forms list the Elan School as one of his employers. (The forms don’t require legislators to disclose much, they don’t state his job titles or his salary.)
As far as I can tell, the only journalist who’s ever asked Diamond about this is Curley.
[A]ccording to Diamond, he “never had an office at Elan” and was “never on campus.”
Diamond characterized his decade and a half working for Elan as being a liaison with the Department of Education regarding Elan’s licensing.
As to how one can be Superintendent of Schools and never be on campus, Diamond told Curley it was
…primarily a title. “They needed a superintendent and I was certified as a superintendent.” Diamond said he dealt with [Ricci’s widow and successor] Sharon Terry and Elan’s lawyer, Robert MacColl via the phone. He said they’d ask for his help with the Department of Education and he would “put them in touch with the right officials so they could talk with them.”
Curley also asked Diamond about a passage in his book in which Diamond says that book
“is about courage and determination, how kids learned to survive, even under the most terrible of conditions. Facts need to be known, so there will be outrage. If not nothing will change.”
Curley then writes:
I observed … that the same … could be written about the residents of Elan and the school’s abusive practices. I asked if he had any misgivings about promoting Elan…Diamond said he believed Elan’s problems were in the past, before he became involved in 1997. He cited how Maine’s Department of Education actually produced some favorable reports about Elan…
The Last Stop explained how that came about: According to author and journalist Maia Szalavitz, Maine officials always gave advance warning about their inspections. In contrast, in 2007, even as Diamond was getting paychecks from Elan, New York authorities, who had been sending youth to Elan, took a different approach. They had read a disturbing op-ed column by Szalavitz in The New York Times that included a discussion of Elan. So they didn’t tell Elan they were coming. Their inspection was a surprise. They were appalled. Their report was damning – and they stopped sending young people to Elan.
|A page from Maine State Sen. Bill Diamond's financial disclosure statement for 2007, the year New York decided to stop sending youth to Elan.|
Diamond told me he heard from Sharon Terry and attorney Ed MacColl that ‘there was another whole side other than what was reported’ concerning New York’s allegations. He recalled that Ed MacColl talked with the Elan Staff and seemed comfortable because Elan was meeting the guidelines from the state Department of Education.
When I noted that New York’s Department of Education didn’t agree it was meeting its guidelines, Diamond again commented that he was not on site, had no knowledge of Elan’s daily operations.
In the end, it wasn’t the state of Maine that shut down Elan – it was the internet. Accounts of survivors went viral and that made it harder to get parents to voluntarily fork over the $54,000 in tuition to send their children to Elan.
Again from Curley’s book:
When I asked Diamond what he thought, reading negative comments by former Elan inmates on the Internet, he said: “I haven’t read any of them. Ed MacColl told me about them, Sharon as well, but they indicated it was about problems primarily in the past."
Diamond made that comment in December, 2012. Should Diamond watch The Last Stop he will hear at least three survivors recount the torment they endured during the years Diamond was employed by Elan.
UPDATE: After reading this post, Maia Szalavitz shared her thoughts on Twitter:
& btw, how can you lobby for an organization that has been known to be abusive for many decades & not even visit to see for yourself? If you didn't visit unannounced, it's negligent; if you did & didn't report it, it's condoning abuse & also illegal.— Maia Szalavitz (@maiasz) February 28, 2022
A matter of judgment
As I said at the outset, though I believe Bill Diamond’s approach to fixing child welfare is wrong - dangerously wrong, in fact - I believe he sincerely wants to help abused children.
But all of this begs the question: Has Bill Diamond shown the judgment necessary to be considered an expert on child abuse? Should Maine media treat him as their “Godsource” when he was unaware of what former inmates say they endured at the Elan School even as he was on the school’s payroll?
At a minimum, instead of preceding every quote with some version of “Diamond has worked on child welfare problems for years, under four different governors” how about “Diamond was the former governmental relations manager and superintendent of schools for the notorious Elan School, but he maintains he was unaware of the abuses former residents say they endured there.”
I used to say that any reporter covering child welfare in Maine has a moral obligation to watch one documentary: The PBS Frontline documentary, “The Taking of Logan Marr.” Now I would add that anyone who wants to quote Bill Diamond should watch two.
Because, as Bill Diamond might say:
Facts need to be known, so there will be outrage. If not, nothing will change.