Sunday, July 02, 2006

It's time to kick some ass!

Confession, they say, is good for the soul. If so, I'm about to be very, very good to my soul, because as a onetime news editor once known for the ability to smell out news and occasionally described years ago as "the conscience of the newsroom," I've become more like the kind of news editors that I've grown to loathe over the years -- the kind that don't give a rip when mental health "professionals" kill kids.

I'm in abundant company because only two reporters in the Twin Cities -- and apparently just one editor (all worked for the Pioneer Press) -- thought that restraining a 7-year-old girl until she was lifeless is a story worth covering in great detail. Think of all the crap that news departments cover (the other night, WCCO-TV's headline was "Where do middle names come from?"), and then tell me a logical reason why the people responsible for telling you the "news" didn't think this was a news story.

Here's the only one I can think of: they all have healthy children. They've got a good excuse for not caring. They're ignorant. I'm not. I've watched people try to navigate the "Titicut Follies" production that is the Minnesota -- and certainly Wisconsin -- mental health system. Though there are the occasional bright lights who have figured out that it's perfectly reasonable that the most complex organ in the body can get out of kilter, far too often we found puffed-up phonies who used their education to come up with new -- and often undetectable ways -- to say "what this kid needs a good kick in the ass."

That's what Angellika Arndt needed, apparently. And she got it, until she was dead according to a Pioneer Press article, which -- unfortunately -- is now behind a premium content firewall.

Angellika Arndt, a 7-year-old Wisconsin girl, passed out after being restrained at a Rice Lake counseling center. Arndt died May 26 in Minneapolis, where she was hospitalized after the incident. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled her death a homicide.

A 7-year-old girl who died a day after being physically restrained by employees at a Rice Lake, Wis., counseling clinic was placed in a so-called "control hold" because she was "gargling milk," according to a report by state health officials.

In an investigation into the girl's death, the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services also cited "multiple violations" of state law at the Northwest Counseling and Guidance Clinics, including the law governing physical restraint of clients.

As I understand it, there's been a correction to the story. Apparently "gargling milk" was just a sample of her behavior, not the reason she was restrained until dead. As if there is a reason that justifies the death of a 7-year-old.

Now, I know what you're saying, Minnesota. You're saying, "hey, that's Wisconsin, that's not us." And you'd be right. But let me ask you this question: why is that what you're thinking? Where's your outrage?

A man gets shoved in a police car on a hot day and passes out, and the police department answers for it for weeks (appropriately so). A convicted cop killer goes to death row, and people protest it for years. Need more? Guantanamo Bay anyone? Omar Jamal ring a bell? All causes that seem to spur a "how can this happen?" response from a significant portion of the masses, a response that is documented by reporters and anchor people, thanks to people like me who determine that it's "news."

Here's another confession -- or more accurately, a disclaimer. My wife spends an inordinate amount of time working on behalf of parents of mentally ill children in Minnesota, trying to get the system to recognize the value of parents as partners in mental health treatment. Far too often, from the stories she tells me, some mental health "professionals" think parents are the ones to whom you say "thanks for your kid, now go away while we 'treat' her," just before they slam the door, and -- occasionally -- kill their patients.

I've often wondered why she spends so much time trying to change the system, rather than just telling the parents who call for help during a crisis, "shave his head, give him some crutches, schedule a fundraiser, and call the newsrooms." The people with the healthy kids who run newsrooms respond to that.

But we -- I -- didn't respond to Angellika Arndt. I think my wife gave me a "heads up" that this had happened before the Pioneer Press printed the article. And I did what so many other people do, except that I didn't even put enough effort into it to shrug my shoulders. I just said "oh well. It happens," and turned up the volume on the ballgame.

We deal in "facts" in the news business. Here's a couple of facts: there's no reason a 7-year-old girl should die while in the hands of mental health "professionals" and there's no reason I and the people in my business should ignore the situation when one does.

But we did.

Shame on me and the people in the news business. Shame on you for not kicking our ass.


Fuck You Google said...

That was very well written, and powerful.

Mark Gisleson said...

Not to be impolitic, but how much do you think the corporatization of the news media has to do with that?

If Ambassador Khalilzad's memo can't get play in the major news media, what hope is there for scandals closer to home?

As a resume writer these past 18 years, I understand and appreciate how much hard work it takes to get a writing gig with a major media news outlet. And that's just about the only reason I don't lay awake at night wondering why reporters like you don't bolt and start up indy news operations on the web.

Bloggers will never replace journalists, but sadly, there are no shortage of journalists and newsroom editors who need some remedial training in what is and isn't "news."

Luzestela said...

The outrage is here.. and in every family with a sweet child with a neurobiological brain illness. After a while we get a bit beaten down, but sweet Angie's story keeps our rage alive (check out her memorial pages online).

The news media is only representative of a society which still stigmatizes any kind of "mental" albeit physical illness affecting the brain. Thanks for your awareness and insight. You do still deserve a better photo, though.....

Alicia said...

I think a big part of this comes from a fundamental lack of understanding of what exactly is going on in such a situation.

When a reporter is sent to cover a story out of their area of expertise (as often happens in the media) they are ill-prepared to truly cover the story, rather than just report a few facts. Few, if any, newspapers in this country are willing to put in the money for training to have staff who understand mental health needs, the mental health system and related topics. This means that when a story like this arises, they don't understand how egregious the situation is (and as long as their reading public doesn't force them to look deeper, why should they?). The members of the media who cover(ed) this story realize that a child has died, but for them, what's the difference between this and the tens of thousands of people who die every year from medical malpractice? If a paper were to investigate and report on each of these deaths, there'd be no room left for other news.

I've worked in the media for a few years now and I don't think that anyone is purposely trying to ignore stories like this, I think there's just a genuine lack of knowledge. This isn't about "the corporatization of the news media" or the liberal left or anything like this. It's just about a failure to see the importance of tragic events like this. This is a failure on the part of the news media, yes, but it's also a failure on the part of Americans in general. For those of us who deal with these issues, this is an experience that hits us in the solar plexus because we think, "That could have been my sister/brother/son/daughter/mother/cousin/etc." For everybody else, it's just, "Oh, isn't that sad about that little girl. Did the Twins win last night?" If the rest of America paid half as much attention to this as we do to whether or not President Bush's minions may have seen your cell phone records, the mental health system in this country would be phenomenal. If we spent a quarter of the time we spend fretting about sex offenders and civil commitments and focus it on improving the quality of life for those who have mental illnesses, this little girl might have been able to stay home or in a residential treatment center rather than a "counseling center" (institution).

If the public demanded answers and some level of transparency in our care centers, the rest of us could sleep at night without worrying that we might get the same call Angellika's mother got.

ctotty said...

I am the adopitve parent of Angellika's biological brother. I feel that the press was very insensitive to us by not having us notified in person as her next of kin before releasing this to the public. I learned of the death of his sister by randomly finding it on the internet while searching for something else 3 weeks after it occurred. We missed her funeral and all of the rites that would have helped him grieve. It would not be hard for us to be contacted since the Milwaukee County Dept of Child Welfare had all of our contact info becuase our adoption of our son was only 2 years ago. I was very upset to learn of this in this manner. I was the one who then had to contact their biological grandparents and tell them that their grand daughter had been killed. Cynthia Totty-Hefley