Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Overheard in the local Social Security Office

In my local Social Security office on Dec 31, I was greeted by a cordial security guard as I entered and instructed how to use the kiosk to generate a ticket with my number on it. This was followed by 15 minutes of awkward silence where twenty strangers ignored each other in a tiny waiting room.
I took a chance and broke the silence with a bold comment, "sir, excuse me, are you carrying a firearm?"
"Why, yes I am." he answered, unruffled by my audacity.
"Do you want a job protecting my daughter's elementary school?" I asked.
He laughed and agreed.

A lively and friendly discussion about the events at Newtown ensued, with all the participants agreeing that armed security at elementary schools was an idea whose time had come.
The security guard mentioned that the reason he was armed is because of Oklahoma City bombing where over 20 children's lives in a day care were cruelly ended. I mentioned that we should learn the same lesson where 20 children's lives were just as cruelly taken.
A woman added gently that there needs to be improvements in how we help the mentally ill. The fact that she was not disagreeing but just adding an aspect to the discussion was interesting. The news media makes this a name calling, hostile guns or mental health standoff. Meanwhile, I agreed with her citing my background as an MSW student at Fordham Univ where I studied the disastrous social policy of de-institutionalization of the mentally ill over 40 years ago and how it not only created the homeless crisis but made our streets unsafe as its nearly impossible to commit someone who is mentally ill against their will. The funds which were slated to provide halfway houses for long term institutionalized patients who were not ready to be thrown out on the streets with nothing more than the phone number for a social worker and a prescription for their schizophrenia.
 My friends and I, with nothing more than a BA in Psychology, were case managers for these poor souls in the early 1980's. It was a burnout situation, my friend's client killed his father and she felt responsible, but she had over 50 such clients, and all she could do was get them to the clinic for medication refills. I helped them when they were in crisis, homeless, without meds or food, but they needed more supervision. I left Catholic Charities after only two years, took some time in Europe to find myself, and returned to the US determined to be an English as a Second Language teacher. At least immigrants could be helped, I argued. The mentally ill situation is hopelessly stuck by immoral bureaucrats who pilfered the money which would have fixed the system by creating halfway houses in the old state institutions.

The lady in the Social Security Office worked at Transitional Services, one of the few halfway houses on Long Island, where I was working. It was built in the buildings of Pilgrim State Hospital, and provided exactly the type of services which the severely mentally ill require. Would that Adam Lanza had been able to reach help in  time to prevent the tragedy of Newtown.
The security guard and I discovered we both had special needs daughters who attended the same Catholic school.
We all parted on friendly terms.
Its a small world and a lot friendlier when you take a chance to foster dialogue rather than punditry.
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