Sunday, January 30, 2011

This piece points out some fairly staggering dollar figures for health-care fraud in the U.S. I went looking for made-in Canada stats but can't seem to find any, but I did come across this site that has some news about the kinds of things we get up to on this front in our country.

Friday, January 28, 2011

We don't want police as arbiters of public information

Without question, the murder-suicide in Cadboro Bay last week was a “family tragedy,” in the words of Saanich police.
But it was also a crime, and a very serious one at that.  And yet the police department has refused to release the usual details that are made public after a murder. In the case of Erich and Kathy Mueller, police are even refusing to say who was victim and who was murderer.
I feel for the Mueller family. But then again, I feel for all the families who have to endure a crime, not to mention the media coverage that follows. It must be quite a terrible experience when it’s your child, your parents, your life, being blasted all over that day’s news, and at a time of immense grief.
Unfortunately, that’s how it is in a free country. Someone caught committing a crime, no matter how small, could end up in the news if the media take an interest. If you kill someone, your crime is absolutely going to get coverage.
That’s exactly how it should be in my mind. Police departments are overstepping their bounds when they make arbitrary decisions over how much information to release to the media.
It’s rare for police to withhold basic details, mind you, and from what I can tell happens only when the crime has been committed by an older person from a good background. But that fact just underlines that police are making these kinds of decisions for all the wrong reasons.
If the Mueller murder-suicide had happened in a downtown hotel known for its impoverished, addicted clientele, would police still be withholding the most basic details of the crime - like who killed who? Or if the couple had been, say, Somali immigrants two years in the country? Or a young aboriginal couple?
Of course, it could be that in all of those situations, police would have made exactly the same decisions around what information to release. Maybe factors like economic status, age, family likeability and race don’t play a role in such decisions, and never mind how it looks from the outside.
But at a minimum, police should tell us why they won’t release more details in the Mueller case. Nobody wants to make life any more miserable for the family, but the principle underlying this issue is too important to ignore.
We all recognize police aren’t able to make certain details public immediately after a crime  - in the interest of solving it, notifying next-of-kin and securing public safety.
But that’s not this is about. This is about special status conferred to some families based on the personal feelings of police.
Do we really want police deciding on our behalf which crimes we’ll be told about? Which details we’ll learn? Do we want to leave it to police to pick and choose which families will be shielded from adverse publicity - and conversely, which ones won’t be?
This latest tragedy isn’t an isolated case. I remember a heated exchange over the Times Colonist boardroom table with two Victoria police officers. It was 1994 and I was city editor, and police were very, very angry with us for publishing the names of a local dentist and his wife found dead in their Rockland Avenue home.
The dentist had killed his wife with a hammer and then hanged himself. But police were categorizing it as a “family tragedy” rather than a crime, and had refused to release the couple’s names. They were furious that the paper had gone ahead and reported who they were anyway.
More commonly, police categorize elderly drivers from good backgrounds as “different” for media purposes in cases where the driver ends up killing or injuring people. Their names are virtually never released to the public.
Why? Are we saying that it’s less of a crime to injure someone when you’re old and demented than it is when you’re young and stupid?
I roll my eyes with the best of them at the excesses of the media. But we should all be grateful that somebody’s out there pushing on the public’s behalf. Knowing the details can be painful, but it’s a heck of a lot better than leaving it to police and government to decide what the public has a right to know.
Equal treatment at the hands of the law is a well-entrenched social more in Canada, and a constitutional right. Surely that includes equality and transparency around how police report out on crimes.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I've been contemplating information sources lately, seeing as we live in an age where the amount of information grows exponentially with each passing day even while the quality and reliability grows increasingly unpredictable.
That got me thinking this morning about how much I appreciate the Globe and Mail, which really does put a lot of effort into keeping the hysteria out of its voice and presenting useful, accurate information for its readers. Today's piece on the plight of women with mental illness in our prison system is an excellent example (check out the "infographic" for some startling statistics).
For the past year I've been doing some work for Demand Media, a tough little freelance gig out of the U.S. that pays almost no money and requires writers to really dig deep to get rock-solid sources for the most obscure topics you could imagine. While I avoid calculating my actual hourly pay for that work - it'd just bum me out - I have found that it has really sharpened my skills at finding reliable on-line sources for information.
They're going to have start teaching that at school pretty soon, as the traditional media models break down and new ones continue to emerge. My advice: Find a few sources you trust and screen out the rest of the noise, because knowing you're getting accurate, unspun information every time is a very valuable thing. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Check out this ad campaign launched this week in Halifax. The community agency that launched the campaign is Stepping Stone, which has been working  with past and current sex workers in Halifax for 20 years. It's the agency's first-ever public awareness campaign, and off to a great start with some help from Extreme Group, a Canadian ad agency that created a funny, edgy and right-on series of print ads making the point that sex workers are people, too.
Here's the news story about the campaign. What a great way to target the stigma that surrounds sex work. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bad design in the Globe's piece Saturday on mental illness and the federal prison system made it a challenging read. Here's an on-line version of Kirk Makin's piece, reprinted on the Social Policy in Ontario site (better than the Globe link for a blogger's purpose, as the link won't disappear in a week like it will on the Globe site). 
Sobering stats in here -  at least 35 per cent of inmates in federal jails have mental illnesses requiring treatment. Like homelessness, the increasing criminalization of mental illness is more unmistakeable proof of Canada's failure to deal competently with treatment and care for people with mental illness. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Say what, Ms. Premier?

Here's Christy Clark on...what, exactly? I do quite a bit of work with the non-profit sector and am familiar with the initiatives she mentions here, but I still couldn't make heads or tails out of what the Liberal leadership candidate was actually saying in this news release.

For Immediate Release

January 20, 2011

Clark Wants Non-Profit and Public Partnerships

VANCOUVER ­ BC Liberal leadership candidate Christy Clark wants to look at strengthening the role of non-profit organizations and volunteers in delivering services to British Columbians.

³The work that non-profits, charities and volunteer groups do every day in British Columbia is inspiring and helps to form the bedrock of our communities,² says Clark. ³These groups are creative in the way they deliver services, they react to the needs of their residents with an alacrity that government can¹t match and provide tremendous value for money. Let¹s recognize the work that is being done and see if there is not a way to fashion a greater role through NPPPs, non-profit and public partnerships.²

Clark says the provincial government, through its Non-Profit Initiative and lead organization Vancouver Foundation, has laid the groundwork for the expansion of the work being done by non-profit groups in British Columbia.

³The reality is government does not need to be the sole provider of all services in British Columbia,² she says. ³Programs offered in the community and by the community can be a tremendous resource and we should look at improving the great work all ready being done.
Government can provide funding and expertise to help these groups. If elected premier, I want to hold a special summit with non-profits, charities and government to see if we can construct a made-in BC model for public and non-profit partnerships. ²

The expansion of non-profits, under Clark¹s vision, would follow four

·         Transparent selection: organizations would clearly know how funding will be allocated and the criteria for selection

·         Encourage: motivate groups and people to get involved

·         Resources: Provide predictable funding and provide knowledge transfer from the B.C. Public Service to non-profits

·         Measurability: Reward excellence and identify weaknesses in public and non-profit delivery of services.

³This campaign is about putting families first and strong communities, with vibrant non-profit groups that contribute so much, are a key part of that,² says Clark. ³It¹s time we look at taking the work that has been done and raising it to the next level. Let¹s engage non-profits, let¹s engage British Columbians and find a way to build a non-profit and public partnership that strengthens communities.²

Earlier this month, Clark committed to holding a review of the current governance and funding formula for gaming grants to ensure charities and community groups have a stable and sustainable source of funding.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Are we seeing more of these kinds of incidents, or are we just more likely to hear about them in this age of cellphone cameras and reporters packing video cameras? Unsettling stuff, not only because of the completely unnecessary boot to the face given this guy but the many questions around how he ended up tagged by police for being a domestic abuser when the women in his life have no idea where that came from.
Whatever else is going on for police in B.C., I think they're developing a serious PR problem with all this stuff. Most police are good people risking their lives to keep us safe from harm - we all get that, I'm sure. But there's definitely more than one rotten apple spoiling things for the larger group, and I hope chiefs all over the province are doing some sober thinking about the suitability of some of the people they're hiring for the work.
In the meantime, keep your cameras on hand. 


Friday, January 14, 2011

Americans dying for their right to guns

Update as of June 12, 2016 - the day after the worst mass killing yet in the U.S., at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Based on the number of mass killings noted in this story and the ones that have happened in the intervening years since I wrote this, there have now been 126 mass killings in the U.S. in the last 50 years. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on the gun issue. I categorize it with issues like abortion, religion, war and Capital Regional District sewage. Most people's minds are made up, so columns don't have much point.
But this latest mass killing in Arizona can’t go without comment. It’s just too blatant a reminder of what can happen when a country loses a grip on gun control.
I know the U.S. is intense about its citizens’ right to bear arms, even when it means leaving the door wide open for deranged, violent people to lose their minds in a most damaging way.
 But surely the citizens themselves must be growing horrified by the truly awful crimes happening in their public spaces. Sometimes even dearly held beliefs need to go by the wayside.
Mass killings like the one in Tucson, Arizona this week are still extremely rare events, of course.
But they’re no longer once-a-generation aberrations like they once were. A 2007 story on the MSNBC Web site reports 100 mass killers in the U.S. since 1966 - the year sniper Charles Whitman climbed a University of Texas tower and started shooting people. Add in at least another dozen in the last three years.
Loose gun laws - laws that most recently allowed a wild-eyed, dangerous young man in the grip of delusion to buy a gun on impulse - have much to do with that.
That’s not to suggest the gun laws are to blame for Jared Loughner’s killing spree. I’m sure any number of wrong turns led to the disastrous decision young Loughner made on Saturday. His being able to buy a handgun in a state that sells them as easily as a pack of smokes was just one of many factors.
But if it weren’t for the Glock in his hand, Loughner couldn’t have done the same damage in such a short period of time. You simply can’t consider the phenomenon of mass public slayings without talking about gun control.
I completely agree with that old saw about how guns don’t kill people, people do. But until we’ve perfected the human being, gun control is all we’ve got.
Fortunately, we live just north of a country that stands as a stark example of what happens when you let that go. Canada has a habit of doggedly following the U.S. into all kinds of trouble on many fronts, but at least on this issue we have taken our own path. May we never stray.
Bearing arms is a constitutional right in the U.S. I don’t think they’re going to give that up. It says a lot that President Barack Obama hasn’t uttered a word about gun control in the days since the Tucson shooting.
But even in a country that views gun ownership as a treasured right, does that require that guns be available to virtually anyone, in every corner store?
One of the popular arguments against limiting sales is that guns are readily available on the black market anyway.
OK, that’s a point. Certainly those in the business of packing guns for illegal activities - gangs, for instance, or professional hit men - would barely register any impact as a result of gun control. Wherever the guns are, they’ll find them.
But it’s not gangs and hit men who are the problem when it comes to the gunning down of random citizens in Safeway parking lots. Nor is it black-market guns.
No, the lone-gunman scenario that has become such a standard story line in the U.S. virtually always involves a deranged, delusional man using a weapon he bought legally. Legal guns are the problem.
The deluge of media coverage on the Tucson killings has brought forward several good points.
It’s true that political rhetoric in the U.S. has reached a fever pitch, in ways that can sound like a call to war to minds that are already fractured and inflamed. It’s also true that expelling an unhinged student from college and leaving him to stew in his own hatred was, in hindsight, an unfortunate development. It’s true that better security at the event might have made the difference.  
But Loughner still couldn’t have killed six people with ease and efficiency were it not for the gun in his hand. I hope ordinary Americans wake up to that truth soon.
U.S. gun laws aren’t responsible for producing a mentally unstable young man full of hate. But they did make it possible for him to become a mass murderer.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

If you're in Vancouver tomorrow, you might want to drop in on a public meet-and-greet featuring the six B.C. Liberals vying for the provincial leadership of the party. Here are the details, plus some other opportunities for hanging out with the leadership candidates. Tickets for tomorrow's forum are $10.
NDP leadership campaign feels like it's still waiting for somebody to light a fire under it. Anyone? Soon?

Friday, January 07, 2011

The ups and (major) downs of governance by whimsy

The provincial government made the very interesting choice over the Christmas season to buy a former air-force base near Prince George that’s been turned into an addiction treatment centre for men.
On the one hand, it’s great news. B.C. has never had anything quite like this centre before. Men can stay for up to a year in a village-style setting at the Baldy Hughes Therapeutic Community, with government footing the bill if people qualify for income assistance. That’s terrific.
On the other, it’s a striking reminder of how political and uneven the decision-making has become in B.C. Wonderful to have a new addiction resource available for British Columbians, but just a little unsettling when it happens in the same year that other addiction services are being cut across the province.
Welcome to life in a province with no social policy. Funding comes and goes based on whim and political influence, as far as I can tell. Even while the Baldy Hughes facility was launching for men with severe addictions, an effective and well-used provincial treatment centre for youth in Terrace was closing due to funding cuts. 
Political connections certainly seem to help when it comes to who’s up and who’s down. Baldy Hughes was started in late 2007 by former Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt. He’s no longer involved, but I have to think that being founded by a high-profile Liberal is a plus when looking for money.
But the source of funding is also a critical piece. A budget crisis among B.C.’s health authorities caused the cuts to addiction services last year. The $3 million to buy and operate Baldy Hughes is mostly coming from B.C. Housing and the Social Development Ministry.
Good news for Baldy Hughes. Less good for whatever provincial housing/welfare priorities got tossed as a result of money being routed to addiction services instead.
As for sustainability, nobody in the non-profit sector can count on that. Funding priorities can change in an instant when a province is making social policy up on the fly. That’s the real harm of political decision-making in a policy vacuum, particularly in a downturn: Anything can happen, and it rarely has anything to do with whether a service is effective and well-used.
Baldy Hughes executive director Marshall Smith says the therapeutic community has already had significant success. He’ll be releasing the data bearing that out later this month after a University of B.C. evaluation wraps up.
Seventy men are now staying at the centre, and soon there will be 90. Success is measured by ongoing sobriety, improved health and “positive citizenship,” says Smith.
“Are you employed? Are you housed? Have you stopped committing offences? Those are all measures of positive citizenship, which is unique to a therapeutic-community approach,” says Smith. “That’s a necessary thing if someone’s going to maintain their success.”
Smith has some expertise on that front. A former political aide to Ted Nebbeling, he was on the streets himself for more than three years, 2004-07, after a drug addiction took over his life. He sobered up and signed on with Mayencourt to develop the centre.
Unfortunately, the centre could turn out to be an amazing success and that still wouldn’t assure its funding. Many, many fine programs and services have folded in B.C. over the years - not because anyone was unhappy with their work, but simply because funders lost interest or found a new flavour. 
Baldy Hughes is getting $277,000 annually from B.C. Housing for operating expenses and another $610 a month from the Social Development Ministry for each resident on income assistance, up to $676,000 a year. (Those who don’t qualify for assistance pay $3,000 a month.)
It’s a pretty unusual funding envelope for addiction services. And it’s a risky one as well, because the largesse usually lasts only until somebody in the ministry decides down the line it’s time to get back to “core services.”
Addiction services should be funded just like any other kind of essential care. They’re too important to be managed in this random, poorly considered fashion.
Don’t get me wrong - I like what they’re trying to do at Baldy Hughes. The continuum of addiction services is desperately thin in B.C., and I like the idea of an abstinence-based village in the wilderness that keeps people away from their troubles long enough to forge new ways to cope.
But we’re talking about people’s lives here. We need a broad and consistent vision that holds steady long after the winds of political popularity blow over.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Things are going to get better...aren't they?

I'm on the final day of a three-day juice fast and it's raining, raining, raining, so maybe that explains why everything in the newspapers this morning just seemed like a complete bummer.
Starving bear cubs, cheap honey imports from China destroying the honey industry, sick stories of (alleged) pedophiles rigging weird broom-handle contraptions to torment young boys, the usual array of murders, assaults, fires and mixed fatalities. And the relentless drone of B.C. leadership candidates trying to get out their messages, none of which has so far given me any hope for a bright new future (Christy Clark, please stop with the tiresome talk-radio persona).
Fortunately, I did find one heartening thing to read this morning, a column in the Times Colonist by the Ottawa Citizen's Dan Gardner. I like him when he rants but I like him even better when he just lays out the cold, hard facts, as he does in this piece about our misplaced hysteria about Muslims.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Oh, news from the world can be very weird sometimes, like this story out of Kansas of nursing students posting a picture on Facebook of them posing with a human placenta.
Not a great idea, as it turns out, although I can't for the life of me understand the comments in the story that one of these young women may now be blacklisted from nursing as a result. I guess it shows poor judgment to want to get your photo taken with a placenta and share it with the world, but it doesn't seem like the kind of act that automatically rules you out of nursing.
My mom, an old nurse herself, told me that when she was a student nurse, one of the almighty-god kinds of doctors they had running the show at that time actually threw a patient's uterus at my mother after she'd had the misfortune of handing the guy the wrong instrument during a hysterectomy.
Now THAT's an act that deserves a little censure, on all kinds of fronts.