Growing Old is not for Sissies

My first job after graduating law school as a young attorney, in 1985, was doing elder advocacy. One of my colleagues bought me a great photography book of senior athletes, Growing Old is Not for Sissies, which helped confirm my understanding of aging as challenging, but for those with fortitude and perserverance, it is very possible to live a productive life into very old age.

My wife, Sheryl, and I recently arrived in Israel to visit our son, who is going to school at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology). We timed our trip so we could also visit my mother, Rachel and her husband Peter, who are spending the winter in Israel, and yesterday, we arrived at their apartment in Netanya.

My mother and Peter are in their 80s, and have been spending many winters in Israel, initially doing volunteer work, and as they grew older, simply relaxing and doing some touring. Last year, they were forced to cancel their planned winter trip to Israel after my mother fell down her basement stairs and broke her femur in 5 places and 3 of her vertebrae in her neck. Thankfully, she survived and did not suffer any spinal cord damage. However, she had surgery on both her leg and her neck, which are both put together with plates and screws now. After 3 months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, she finally returned home and is now able to walk on her own, though outside of the home, she uses a walker for safety.

After we arrived at their apartment, Peter reminded me that they just are not the same as they were before my mother’s fall. In fact, he used the phrase, “growing old is not for sissies,” so I told him about the book of senior athlete photos that I received as a young elder law attorney. While aging certainly takes its toll on all of us and has taken its toll on my mother and her husband, today I marveled at my mother’s and Peter’s mobility as well as their ability to enjoy life despite its challenges.

My wife and I enjoyed lunch by the Mediterranean sea with them.

After lunch, Peter took us shopping at the outdoor shuk (market) where he readily purchased produce, eggs, some lovely prepared foods for dinner, and freshly baked onion rolls. My mother kept pace with a smile on her face.

I have written before about how I consider my mother my hero and today’s excursion reminded me of how both she and Peter truly thrive despite the roadblocks that aging places in their path. It is my intention to have the courage and fortitude to age as well as they have. I hope sharing a small slice of their aging success inspires others to age well.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Speaking Truth to Power

Yesterday, I participated in the Autism Society’s Day on the Hill, during which advocates from all over the country met with their members of Congress to advocate for better health care and education for people with autism. We had a strong Wisconsin delegation which was able to meet with almost every member of our Congressional delegation to express our concerns about possible changes to the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, and special education. We also asked each of them to join the bi-partisan Congressional Autism Caucus, which has well over 100 members.

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Brian Beeghly, Mary Fruits, Emily Levine, Kirsten Cooper, Howard Miller and I prepare for our Autism Society advocacy with the Wisconsin Congressional delegation.

Since I have been doing public interest lobbying at both the federal and state level for over 30 years, the less experienced advocates on our team asked me to brief them about each member of Congress prior to each meeting. Before we met with Rep. Glenn Grothman, I told my colleagues that I had known him for many years as although this was just his second term in Congress, he had served in the state legislature for many years prior to that, and during that time, I had met with him many times. I further informed my colleagues that they should expect him to ask an outrageous question.

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Mary Fields, Kirsten Cooper and I emerge with smiles after meeting with Rep. Glenn Grothman.

Sure enough, almost immediately, Rep. Grothman walked into his office where we were already sitting down with his legislative assistant, and recognized me and said:

I have to ask you a question. Do you believe that vaccines cause autism?

While I could not have predicted exactly what outrageous question Rep. Grothman would ask me, I had anticipated that he would ask an outrageous question. I could have demurred and said that this was not what we had come to talk to him about as it was not one of our issues, but my past experience with Rep. Grothman was that he would not give up until he got an answer to his question. So, I replied by saying:

No, I do not believe they cause autism.

Of course that did not satisfy Rep. Grothman, so he persisted by asking:

How do you KNOW they don’t?

So, I replied:

You asked me if I believe they cause autism. I do not BELIEVE they cause autism because science has not demonstrated that they do.

I then proceeded to put him in his place by telling him the story of my brother who died from a pertussis vaccine in 1966. We know this because science proved it and Congress passed a vaccine compensation program for such medical mistakes. I further informed him that fortunately our son was born after scientists developed a dead virus vaccine which is safe so we could give it to him. I closed with informing him that people who do not give their children vaccines are bringing back diseases into our community and they are a public health menace.

By the time I finished, Rep. Grothman recognized that he was not going to win this argument and our meeting was able to continue in the manner that we desired by discussing the issues that we came to talk about. The lesson, of course, is that well prepared advocates will not get thrown off by those in power who choose to pursue an irrelevant agenda. By speaking truth to power, I was able to provide both personal and fact based information to Rep. Grothman and steer the meeting back to what we came to talk about.

While many politicians thrive on intimidating others, it is worth remembering that they are just human beings like every one of us, and treating them as you would treat any other human being helps advocates speak to their legislative representatives as equals, instead of being intimidated by them.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

In Praise of Civil Rights Lawyers

Lawyers are the butt of many jokes, none of which are complimentary. Here’s a classic:

Q: What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer?
A: One’s a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life.

Even Shakespeare famously penned,

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

Shakespeare gave this line to Dick the Butcher in Henry VI. In what could be a prescient prediction of our current times, Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king.

Although my elementary school teachers had me pegged to become a lawyer by the time I was in 5th grade, probably due to my argumentative nature, by high school, all the societal negativity around the legal profession sufficiently dissuaded me from pursuing a legal career. In fact, my intention behind my undergraduate degree in American history was to pursue a Ph.D. in history and become a history professor.

Before doing so, I took 3 years off after receiving my Bachelor’s degree to do some traveling and earn some money. By the middle of that 3rd year, it dawned on me that my advocacy skills were better suited to a career in the law, than a career in academia. More importantly, my decision to go to law school was predicated on a decision that the only kind of law I would practice would be true to my values: civil rights.

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President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Most of my law school classmates scoffed at my pursuit of a career as a civil rights lawyer, suggesting that I would never be able to pay my law school loans off. At some level, their skepticism was appropriate. Finding work as a civil rights lawyer is not easy and none of the various jobs I have held in my 31 years as a civil rights lawyer have paid well. However, I paid my law school loans off a long time ago, and despite some rough financial patches, overall, I have been able to keep my finances in the black.

Recently, I have taken a lot of pride in my choice of career. On a personal level, I can confidently say that I have never taken a case that I was not personally and ethically proud to take. On a professional level, I know that many of my cases have helped to enforce the civil rights of both my individual clients and many others who are impacted either by the class actions I have pursued or the precedents that my cases have set. Indeed, just yesterday, I successfully obtained a court order to reunite a loving mother with her son who had been wrongly taken from her a few months ago by the county.

But my pride in being a civil rights law goes far beyond my own personal practice. It extends to the entire field of civil rights law. We are living in a time when the President of the United States scoffs at civil rights and denigrates judges. The U.S. Senate has just confirmed the new Attorney General, who has made a career out of weakening or attacking civil rights, including:

  • voting against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act; and
  • voting for a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

While it is certainly true that judges make mistakes, that is why we have Courts of Appeal and ultimately the Supreme Court. The concept of judicial review has been the bedrock of our Constitutional system of checks and balances ever since Chief Justice John Marshall enshrined it as a bedrock principle in the 1803 decision of Marbury v. Madison.

But courts do not make decisions or protect civil rights if civil rights attorneys do not bring the cases before them. As I listened to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals historic oral argument in the State of Washington v. Donald J. Trump, a few days ago, I took professional pride in the attorney for the State of Washington who was defending the civil rights of immigrants and refugees and noted that the attorney defending the Executive Order banning entry of so many innocent people seemed like he would have preferred to be elsewhere.

I have learned the hard way that the path of a civil rights lawyer is not an easy one. The system is stacked against those who need civil rights protection the most and many judges and juries prefer to naively believe that we live in a discrimination free nation where civil rights do not need a vigorous defense. However, this uphill battle is exactly why the public at large should appreciate the work of civil rights attorneys, because you never know when it will be your rights that need a vigorous legal defense.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

End Juvenile Solitary Confinement Now

Theoretically, the purpose of the juvenile corrections system is rehabilitation of juveniles who have committed crimes. In fact, all children incarcerated in the juvenile correction system will be released into the community as there is no such thing as life in prison for someone convicted as a juvenile. So, both the incarcerated juveniles and society at large are better off if rehabilitation is successful.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system has failed to accomplish this basic goal of rehabilitation at its 2 locked facilities, Lincoln Hills (for boys) and the adjoining Copper Lake (for girls). In fact, the treatment of these juveniles has gotten so abusive that the FBI has been investigating these facilities for approximately 2 years. While the outcome of that investigation is still pending, more recently the ACLU filed a civil lawsuit against the State of Wisconsin for abusing juveniles at these facilities, including, among other things, by the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement.

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The Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake juvenile corrections facilities

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the heavy use of solitary confinement and pepper spray violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process. Some inmates are confined to 7-foot-by-10-foot cells for months at a time. They typically get out for just an hour or two a day but during that time they are on a belt held by guards or chained to a desk.

Today, I was interviewed on the radio about the use of solitary confinement at these facilities. You can hear the interview here. In recent years, seven states have passed laws that limit or prohibit the use of solitary confinement for youth in detention facilities. For example, Connecticut law states that no child at any time shall be held in solitary confinement, but “seclusion” may be used periodically if authorized and the young person is checked every thirty minutes.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “the potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions. Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”

In 1990, the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty establish minimum standards for the protection of juveniles in correctional facilities which specifically prohibits juvenile solitary confinement, stating, “All disciplinary measures constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment shall be strictly prohibited, including corporal punishment, placement in a dark cell, closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise the physical or mental health of the juvenile concerned.

Wisconsin juveniles should not have to wait for the outcome of the FBI investigation or the ACLU lawsuit. The Wisconsin legislature should promptly act to prohibit the use of solitary confinement at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. This is not just the humane way to treat these juveniles. Traumatizing these children decreases the likelihood of successful rehabilitation and increases the chance that they will commit another crime upon their release. If policymakers truly care about decreasing crime, then they will end this barbaric practice in this legislative session.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.