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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.
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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