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What the eyes never appear to see

For the second year in a row, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal includes an effort to shoehorn vulnerable foster children into foster homes that have not been certified as lead safe

A page from an educational booklet produced by Dutch Boy in the 1920s showcasing all the "benefits" of lead in products.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/11/19
Despite all the ongoing problems at DCYF, the agency and the Raimondo administration are still pushing to circumvent existing state regulations to allow vulnerable foster children to be placed in foster homes that are not certified as lead-safe.

PROVIDENCE – The conversation was sparked by a question posed in the sidebar, “The questions that need to be asked,” accompanying a story in the March 11 edition of ConvergenceRI, which reported on the Brown Venture Prize Pitch Night. [Such questions accompany every story in ConvergenceRI.]

“Why is there an absence of comprehensive, detailed reporting on the innovation ecosystem and innovation economy activities in Rhode Island?” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Brown venture prize pitch night draws an overflow crowd.”]

The question resonated with a college newspaper reporter, who was considering revamping her beat to cover innovation.

And, she did what a diligent reporter might do: she reached out to ConvergenceRI to meet and to talk about what might be included in such an Innovation Beat.

Coffee at Olga’s
The reporter met ConvergenceRI for coffee at Olga’s Cup + Saucer on Point Street, still the hub of innovation in the former Jewelry District, on Thursday afternoon, March 14.

Having finished an exam, the reporter had jumped on a red JUMP Bike [sponsored by Tufts Health Plan] and rode to Olga’s, braving the congested traffic and the steady flow of trucks on Point Street in the early afternoon.

Like robins returning after winter, will JUMP Bikes become a new sign of spring as we enter the next age of innovation?

For the next hour, the reporter had peppered ConvergenceRI with probing questions, and ConvergenceRI answered as best he could: how long had ConvergenceRI been in business? [Six years.] What kinds of stories do you cover? [The convergence of health, science, innovation, technology, research and community, writ large.] What was the value proposition behind the venture? [To create an engaged community of readers, who share the reporting across their networks, the way that information flows best in the digital age we live in.] What had you done before you worked on ConvergenceRI? [It would take too long to answer; my career has never moved in a straight path.]

Instead of being the one asking questions, the roles were reversed; the reporter kept up a busy stream of questioning, writing down the answers in her notebook. It was, in many ways, a humbling – and refreshing – exercise.

Give and take
ConvergenceRI praised the decision to consider expanding coverage to include the Innovation Beat, a missing ingredient in the news coverage by most media outlets in Rhode Island.

One of the questions that needed to be answered, ConvergenceRI continued, was how the new Innovation Beat was going to be defined: Was it an innovation beat as defined by academic connections? Was it an innovation beat that included the new innovation district in Providence as well as the proposed innovation corridor in Olneyville? Would it include innovation that was happening in the community, outside the walls of academia? Did there need to be a direct connection to academia in order to cover a story?

ConvergenceRI also suggested that there might be a need to redefine what was meant by “innovation,” an overused word, because its definition had been blurred or held captive in silos.

[Business Innovation Factory founder Saul Kaplan had tweeted the day before, “The good news: It’s the innovator’s day. The bad news: We’ve turned innovation into a buzzword,” referring to a story about how at SXSW in Austin, the word “innovate” had been said more than 650,000 times.]

The reporter pushed back, asking ConvergenceRI to explain what he meant. Answering, ConvergenceRI alluded to the poem, “Law, Like Love,” by W.H. Auden.

The reporter said she had not heard of either, so ConvergenceRI called it up on his phone, and in retrospect, in what was certainly a bit pedantic if not patronizing, he began to read the poem out loud:

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

The message in the poem, ConvergenceRI explained, was much like what happens when practitioners in the art of innovation are asked to talk about innovation: they define it according to their own views, a reflection of themselves in the mirror, often talking with a sureness and certainty that defies the ability to question their correctness.

One of the problems with that, ConvergenceRI continued, is that innovation is often thought to be the pathway to economic success, with success defined in financial terms, whereas, in reality, the process of innovation is often built upon failure, and the willingness to learn from mistakes, the ability to realize that you are driving in the wrong direction and you must turn around and go the other way [what is called “pivoting” in innovation-speak].

A great first story as part of the new beat, ConvergenceRI then suggested, would be to go around and ask numerous practitioners of “innovation” to define what they meant by innovation.

The reporter seemed a bit perplexed by the suggestion. Wouldn’t they all say something different and not agree? Where is the news story in that?

Yes, exactly, ConvergenceRI.

In retrospect, perhaps what ConvergenceRI should have added was this: Such an exercise provides the readers an opportunity to participate and to become involved in your journey to cover the Innovation Beat, so that the readers become part of the story as it unfolds, wanting to know what happens next. It would allow the newspaper to develop its own definition of the innovation ecosystem, and to allow for that definition to change and evolve, as a kind of living, breathing process.

Indeed, in the very first issue of ConvergenceRI, on Sept. 23, 2013, the question was posed to nine different practitioners of “innovation” about what the former Jewelry District should be called. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “What defines the emerging Knowledge District?”] In six years, the phrase, “Knowledge District” has faded from memory; firms have relocated; folks have changed jobs; buildings have been rehabbed, new buildings have been erected; all part of the natural ebb and flow on the river of commerce.

ConvergenceRI also suggested the reporter ask the practitioners in the art of innovation to define the connection between innovation, success, and failure. Most ventures fail, most equity investments do not pan out, and many experiments do not achieve the results sought.

A guide for the perplexed
Realizing that the conversation was getting a bit too abstract, ConvergenceRI brought it back to some tangible examples of innovation, occurring outside the world of academia. [The top two prize winners a the venture pitch night had been outward focusing – developing a better way to fill out immigration forms for asylum seekers and lawyers, and the marketing of a super grain, Teff, to benefit small farmers in Ethiopia.]

When was the last time you were in Central Falls? ConvergenceRI asked, and The reporter responded, never.

ConvergenceRI suggested that reporter visit the new Neighborhood Health Station in Central Falls and its new facility, the first major new building constructed in the city in two decades, where a community health center had developed an innovative concept around the delivery of health care, an integrated one-stop shopping experience where primary care and urgent care, pharmacy care and lab services could be delivered in one place, in walking distance, serving the majority of residents in Central Falls. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Reaching the promised land.”]

The next example of innovation occurring outside the walls of academia that ConvergenceRI shared was the Sankofa Initiative in the West End of Providence, which had built an affordable housing project in concert with urban growing spaces, a greenhouse and a commercial kitchen. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Sankofa builds healthy community oasis in diverse West End.”]

Another example of “innovation” was health equity zones; the reporter said she was familiar with those, having read a story about their planned expansion. ConvergenceRI suggested she visit some of the ongoing HEZ activities in Olneyville, particularly around their use of mindfulness, working with young parents. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “At home in the hub of Olneyville.”]

Further, ConvergenceRI brought up IlluminOss, a private, commercial-stage company headquartered in East Providence, which has successfully developed an innovative bone fracture repair system and is expanding its footprint in the U.S. market. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “IlluminOss expands its bone fracture repair system in U.S. Commercial market.”]

ConvergenceRI also mentioned EpiVax, Inc., one of the pioneering biotech companies in Rhode Island, which celebrated its 20th birthday last year by moving its headquarters from the former Jewelry District to the Rising Sun Mills in Olneyville. [See link below to ConvergenceRI stories, “FDA awards $1 million EpiVax, CUBRC, to assess generic peptide drugs,” and “Writing the next chapter at EpiVax.”]

How do all these initiatives fit into the definition of an innovation beat?

A brief walking tour
As the conversation wound down, ConvergenceRI was a bit frustrated with what he felt was his own inability to express himself, worried he had sounded too didactic. So, on a whim, ConvergenceRI suggested to the reporter that they take an impromptu walking tour in the immediate neighborhood around Olga’s.

First stop, of course, was to put more money in the parking meter [the Providence meter folks were ever-vigilant], and then to point out the new construction next to Olga’s, at the former home of Planned Parenthood, which was soon to open as a new pediatric dentistry office. Should that be included as part of any map of the new Innovation District?

Then it was off to the Social Enterprise Greenhouse to see if Meg Wirth, the director of Health & Wellness ventures [as well as the co-founder of Maternova] was available for a brief chat, but she was on vacation. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “Maternova launches new protective wear for women to combat spread of Zika,” “Nurturing social enterprise in Rhode Island,” and “Doing well by doing good at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.”]

We also quickly checked to see if Joanna Detz, publisher of ecoRI News, was at her desk on the second-floor workspace, but she was elsewhere. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “To podcast, or not to podcast? Reaching your audience where they are.”]

We then went across the street to One Davol Square to visit the new offices of The Mindfulness Center, an initiative of the Brown School of Public Health, in search of Eric Loucks, the program director. ConvergenceRI had been trying to set up an interview with Loucks for a number of months, without success, to talk about the Center’s expansion.

The reporter had never been inside the vast, rehabilitated former factory complex, and was unfamiliar with The Mindfulness Center.

Loucks wasn’t in, but those at The Mindfulness Center were eager to talk with the reporter and pitch an article. Although ConvergenceRI had done a number of stories about The Mindfulness Center, they had not heard of the publication. So it goes. [See link below to ConvergenceRI stories, “The mindfulness center opens at Brown,” and “The best way to improve heart health may be mindfulness.”]

The reporter also had been curious about what was the Slater Fund, having read about it in the Brown Venture Pitch Night story. An old sign on the outside of One Davol Square had listed the Slater Technology Fund as a tenant, but they had moved out nine months ago. Also listed erroneously on the sign was The Tech Collective, which has been headquartered in the Rising Sun Mills for the past four years.

Next stop was the headquarters of ProThera Biologics, a firm pioneering therapies for inflammatory diseases, where Rich Horan has an office. Horan is the former managing director at Slater who is now the principal behind Biograph Venture Development LLC. But Horan wasn’t in. [See link below to story, “ProThera launches strategic partnership to help launch its biologic into the clinic.”]

Is this what you do all day? the reporter asked. Yes and no, ConvergenceRI answered, unsure of how to respond to the question.

[Again, retrospect, what ConvergenceRI might have said in response was that the process of reporting requires patience and persistence, the willingness to seek out stories that may take months to develop, and not to get discouraged when stories do not pan out. To know what was happening inside the edifices. Shoe leather reporting was important, even when there was no immediate gratification.]

So we moseyed around the corner to the Alpert Medical School where ConvergenceRI wanted to renew his long-standing request for an interview with the dean, Dr. Jack Elias.

As ConvergenceRI explained, sometimes a visit and making a request in person can produce better results than trying to fight your way through the maze of bureaucratic hierarchy, particularly for someone with such a busy schedule as the dean. We talked briefly with Elias’s executive assistant, who explained that the next few months would be crazy busy, starting with Match Day, tomorrow, for Brown medical students, where they discover where they have been “matched” to do their residencies.

Walking back to her JUMP Bike and to ConvergenceRI’s car, as we took in all the ongoing construction in what is now referred to as the Providence Design and Innovation District, ConvergenceRI asked out loud: Wouldn’t you think that a traffic study would be part of any design for an Innovation District?

What do you mean? the reporter asked.

Well, ConvergenceRI answered, there will be hundreds of new employees coming to work each day at the Wexford Innovation Complex, and while there has been some discussion around parking, there doesn’t seem to be any traffic studies or plans about what to do about the coming congestion. And, it would not necessarily be a safe place to ride a JUMP Bike, ConvergenceRI added.

How many of the new employees were going to be living in the neighborhood, walking to work? Where are the amenities that would attract families with young children – schools, playgrounds, and grocery stores?

It was like a collision between the visions of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, ConvergenceRI continued, happening again. Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, talked about the importance of building cities on a human, walk-able scale; she battled with Robert Moses, an infamous New York City urban planner, who believed in urban renewal and big highways. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Diversity, serendipity versus the pursuit of loneliness.”]

Such collisions that are so important to the vitality of an innovation ecosystem need to happen outside of an enclosed work space, walking on the street, chance encounters and conversations, call it serendipity, not just behind walls or gated corporate communities.

A million stories in the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem
With more time, ConvergenceRI would have extended the tour to include NEMIC, the New England Medical Innovation Center, and RI Bio and RI Biohub, the latest efforts to organize an industry cluster group around the Rhode Island biotech and life sciences community. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Talking about an innovation revolution.”]

There are, of course, the three new Innovation Campuses being developed in partnership with URI, which were announced in December of 2018. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story.]

And, the opening of the new home of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, in the same building complex where the new Shake Shack is located, at 249 Thayer St.

“We envision this home, located right across the street from the Brown bookstore, as an integral part of the Brown ecosystem,” as the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship described it on their website. “This built-from-scratch, 10,000-square-foot four-story building will provide space for new student ventures, events, entrepreneurs-in-residence, visiting faculty and student organizations.”

For the last few years, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship has occupied a temporary home at the Brown Hillel center. The new building, according to the recent official announcement, “will encourage the kind of accidental collisions between experts and disciplines that are central to entrepreneurship and to the missions of both the center and Brown.”

In the meantime, most of the attention about the new building has been focused on the tenant occupying the first floor: Rhode Island’s first Shake Shack. A feature story in the Brown Daily Herald proclaimed: “Shake Shack shakes up Thayer: Opening day for the national burger chain brings long lines, eager students, tasty treats.”

In the story, there was not a single mention of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship. Sometimes, the innovation ecosystem can be hiding in plain sight. So, too, can other important stories.

ConvergenceRI did stop by the Shake Shack on opening day, his first-ever visit to the chain eatery. Standing beside him in line was an 80-year-old, born-and-bred resident of the East Side, an African American woman, who told ConvergenceRI she wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Was there a different way to look at the customer base for the Shake Shack, beyond students, beyond the assumptions about who actually lives on the East Side?

The expediter at the counter, handing out meals to waiting customers, was a middle-aged man with gray hair peaking out from under his cap. “Exactamundo!” he exclaimed, when matching an order to a customer, using a phrase popularized by the Fonz, Henry Winkler’s character on the hit TV series, “Happy Days,” from the 1970s. Would the demographics of the army of worker bees behind the counter at Shake Shack tell a different story about the relative health of the Rhode Island economy?

For all the talk of investing in parenting support, early education, and childcare, why is there a continual push by the Raimondo administration to place vulnerable foster children into homes that are not lead-safe? Given the long-term problems associated with childhood lead poisoning, which will create a potential lifetime of mental and physical disabilities, why not invest in making lead removal a priority in foster homes? Will anyone in the news media be willing to challenge Gov. Raimondo and ask her questions about this apparent short-sighted policy?
New samplings of fish taken from Rhode Island waters have identified high levels of mercury as a growing potential health hazard for residents consuming fish. Mercury poisoning, like lead poisoning, is a known and proven health hazard that can cause irreparable brain damage. Pregnant women in Rhode Island are already advised not to each fresh water fish.
A large percentage of the mercury that winds up accumulating in fish has been linked to emissions from coal-burning power plants. The Trump administration has sought to reduce regulations that limit such mercury emissions.
If Rhode Island is genuinely concerned with protecting the health and well-being of its children and families, it needs to aggressively move to protect residents from the threats of environmental poisons and toxins in the water we drink, in the air we breathe, in food we eat, in the housing we live in, and in the schools we attend. The costs of prevention are far, far less than the costs of future medical and educational expenses Rhode Islanders will incur, as individuals, as families, and as a state.
It is a matter of short-term gain vs. long-term pain.

PROVIDENCE – Why would anyone want to place vulnerable children into foster homes that could put them at greater risk, with potential to cause long-term harm to their health?

That was the question many childhood lead poisoning prevention advocates such as Liz Colon asked following legislative hearings held last week, when Article 10 and Article 15 of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s FY 2020 budget were discussed at a hearing before the House Finance Committee on Wednesday evening, March 6, and again before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday evening, March 7.

With so much attention in recent months being focused on the continuing dire problems with the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families and foster homes, community advocates working to prevent childhood lead poisoning in the state said they were saddened [but not necessarily surprised] that Gov. Gina Raimondo and her administration, for the second year in a row, were still trying to find a shortcut around state regulations protecting children from the threat of being poisoned by lead in order to shoehorn foster children into homes that have not been deemed lead-safe – in the name of cost savings.

Translated, to help ease the shortage of foster homes, DCYF is pushing to waive state regulations around foster homes being certified as lead-safe, claiming – incorrectly, according to childhood lead poisoning prevention advocates – that the process was too time-consuming and expensive.

Not factored into the cost-saving equation by DCYF, according to Colon, were the large medical, educational and social services expenses that would be incurred if a foster child placed in such a home were to become lead-poisoned, with life-long consequences and costs, wiping out any “potential” savings.

In an interview on Thursday afternoon, March 6, the day after the House hearing, Colon, a foster mom herself, expressed outrage at the proposed change, which would enable the state to forego regulations to insist that a foster home be lead-safe before children are placed there.

“These are kids that are already at risk for numerous different things,” Colon told ConvergenceRI. Instead, she called the move by the Raimondo administration, supported by R.I. DCYF, was: “Going back to where [the most vulnerable kids] were serving as the canary in the coal mine.” There were numerous ways, Colon continued, to work in collaboration with health authorities to achieve lead-safe certification in an expedited manner.

Willful and reckless
In testimony prepared last year for legislative hearings in 2018, in opposition to a similar budget proposal to exempt DCYF from requiring a lead inspection and remediation of lead hazards in licensing foster home placements of children placed out of their homes, a retired pediatrician involved for years in childhood lead poisoning prevention efforts wrote: “Weakening our legal and regulatory approach to protecting some of the most vulnerable of our children is a bad idea. I believe it would be seen as deviation from reasonable policy to protect children from lead hazards in foster homes.”

Further, the pediatrician wrote: “I have been told that the primary driver of DCYF’s request for this change is administrative and budgetary, and that they have not seriously engaged with the Health Department in response to their offers of assistance to expedite the process of making these homes safe for foster children.”

The pediatrician concluded: “Knowing that these children are perhaps the most vulnerable we have in our community, some would call this proposal willful and reckless negligence.”

Numbing bureaucratic language
In the slide deck prepared by the House staff, the move was described in numbing bureaucratic language as an effort to “adjust lead inspection rules,” in order to find savings of an alleged $250,000 in the state budget.

Most of the attention at the hearings focused on other parts of Article 15 of the Governor’s proposed budget, including more “progressive” items to spend more money to expand subsidized child care and raise rates, remove interim cash assistance time limits, and expand access to free school meals.

Indeed, Courtney Hawkins, the director of the R.I. Department of Human Services, following the Senate Finance Committee held on Thursday evening, March 7, chaired by Sen. Lou DiPalma, a champion of the rights of the disabled, complimented his leadership. In a tweet, Hawkins praised DiPalma’s leadership in the hearing on Article 15: “You always keep vulnerable R.I. families in the forefront of the conversation and I am grateful for your partnership.”

In turn, DiPalma responded, in a tweet: “Thanks for your commitment and exemplary leadership of @RIHumanServices. It is needed, recognized and appreciated.”

Both DiPalma and Hawkins are correct in their mutual admiration for each other’s efforts to protect vulnerable Rhode Island families; many of the proposals in Article 15 are forward-looking investments.

But, when it comes to vulnerable Rhode Island residents and families, the question is: Who is more vulnerable than a foster child being placed in a foster home that has not been certified as lead-safe?

Another question: Why isn’t the state willing to make the long-term investment in making foster homes lead-safe?

What the eyes don’t see
Rhode Islanders have a long history on taking action on lead poisoning that they can proud of, said Laura Brion, executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project. The state, Brion continued, has been at the forefront of efforts to protect children from lead poisoning for 30 years.

“We know what it takes to reduce lead poisoning levels in children,” she said. “We also know that there is no safe level of lead exposure,” saying that some 700 kids are being newly poisoned each year in Rhode Island. “We need to finish the job, eliminating lead in Rhode Island.”

“We know where the lead hazards are – in paint, in contaminated soil, in old lead pipe fixtures, in the water system, and in other consumer products, both old and new,” she said.

One of the big problems with the DCYF proposal, Brion continued, is that “every house is different, and the amount of time it takes to make it free from lead hazards depends on the starting conditions of that house. It is very, very hard to make blanket statements.”

Isn’t it ironic?
In one month, on Thursday, April 11, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha will be visiting Rhode Island to talk about her new book, What the Eyes Don’t See, which was selected by Reading Across Rhode Island, a division of RI Center for the Book, as its 2019 reading selection.

Hanna-Attisha is the program director for pediatric residency at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, Mich., who played a critical role in publishing research on the extent of elevated levels of lead poisoning of children in the city.

Part of her reason in writing the book, Hanna-Attisha explained during an interview with ConvergenceRI in February of 2018, in advance of her lecture on March 1, 2018, at Brown, was to create a different narrative.

“My charge, my work these days, is to share the message: there are Flints everywhere,” she said. “Children [in Flint] are disproportionately affected by some kind of poverty and violence. Lead poisoning is an added source of toxic stress.”

Hanna-Attisha’s visit will come three days after Rhode Island Kids Count holds its 25th annual breakfast to celebrate the release of its 2019 Factbook, on Monday, April 8.

Taken together, the events that week will serve as bookends to a renewed effort to celebrate the health and well being of Rhode Island’s children – as well as to identify and recognize the threats that still exist.


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