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Separation Anxiety

Albany County considers farming out services at award-winning and much beloved county agency for crime victims

‘My entire life has changed because of my treatment there,” said Irene of working with the Crime Victims and Sexual Violence Center of Albany County. “I feel as if for the past 30 years I was living in hell and to me that was normal.” Irene (some client names have been changed to protect confidentiality) was dealing with the effects of numerous traumas in her past, including rapes, being kidnapped, and being held at gunpoint. She was suicidal for 30 years, and disassociated (a common response during trauma, where one seems to be observing one’s own actions from outside of the body) regularly in her everyday life. She had sought help at other agencies and with private counselors before, but she said only the therapists at CVSVC were able to identify the connections between her traumas and her behaviors and give her the tools she needed to live a happy, healthy life.

Irene has recommended the services of the agency—which provides victims of violent crime with free long-term group and individual therapy, a crisis hotline, and advocates who accompany them in the emergency room and through the court process—to many people she knows. But right now she’d be hesitant to suggest it.

A few months ago, she began to notice that vacancies on the staff weren’t being filled, and began to ask county officials what was going on. She didn’t get any clear answers, but not long after her therapist met with her to prepare for a transition to a new therapist. Her therapist was starting to look for other jobs because the agency had been told that the incoming director, Elizabeth Martin, was going to be looking into the possibility of using other county agencies and private not-for-profits to provide CVSVC’s services. Irene said her therapist wanted to stay with the agency, but the future seemed uncertain enough that, with a family to take care of, it seemed wise to be looking for other jobs.

Though clients and volunteers knew few specifics about the supposed changes, and all they were officially told was that Martin (who has not yet been officially appointed) was taking meetings with clients to discuss how the center works, news of the threat of privatization spread rapidly. “It’s very unsettling,” said Patricia Rose, who volunteers on the hotline and as a hospital advocate. “Very discouraging. We are being stonewalled. What did we do wrong?”

Jane, another client, said she’d spoken to two women in a group session who were considering dropping out because the agency’s uncertain future “just doesn’t feel safe.”

Martin, currently the health and human services coordinator for the county, emphasizes that the services will “absolutely” continue, but that “as new director, it’s my duty to research the best systems to deliver those services . . . in the most cost-effective manner.” She said that could end up meaning no change to the center, using other county agencies, or using private nonprofits, but no decision has been made. “If there is a change, it’s going to be a long time out,” she said, insisting the rumors of a change as soon as next April were unfounded.

Martin also said that this examination is not unique to CVSVC. The county executive has charged all the department heads with looking at ways to cut costs, she noted.

But many clients and volunteers have started contacting their county legislators now to express their opposition to any changes that would decentralize the center’s services. The number-one concern is access to therapists with training and experience in the specialized area of working with trauma survivors. Such experience is rare, and clients say many longtime staffers at the 30-year-old CVSVC have developed a unique skill in the area. They are concerned about the ability of nonprofits’ notoriously low wages to attract people with similar depths of experience.

“A master’s degree doesn’t make you a master in working with survivors of trauma,” said Jane, a CVSVC client who has also just completed a masters in social work. “If the work gets outsourced . . . the quality of services will take a nosedive, I guarantee you.”

“Other not-for-profits, they didn’t have therapists, only counselors,” said Irene. “Even the private counselors weren’t equipped to deal with trauma.”

Other concerns include possible compromising of confidentiality if services moved from their current nondescript downtown office building, whether services would remain accessible to people who rely on public transportation, if there would be a dropoff in volunteers if the services are scattered, and losing the focus of an agency with one concentrated mission. “Having it at one central location is validating,” said Daniel Borgia, a former client.

“There’s a strength to the agency,” said Jane. “The feeling of it for me, it’s not just this one person, one clinician helping me.” She also said that in her experience in the field, in “an agency that has diversified services, somebody that has an MSW and also has the experience and specialized training, that person often becomes a resource to the other staff people; they become in a sense a clinical supervisor, even if that’s not their job title, so their ability to focus on the clinical work is diminished.”

And, for current clients, disrupting the established relationships with their therapists is a serious worry. When Florence Getter, a current client, lost a therapist she had been working with at another agency due to budget cuts, it threw her into a serious depression, she said. “Healing occurs in a relationship, and building a relationship takes a lot of time,” explained Jane.

Martin said that in her meetings with concerned clients, she has heard strongly the concern about skill level of the staff, and “that is something I will definitely be considering when I look at different models for delivering the services.”

Rose and others believe, however, that there are indications—such as Martin’s lack of clinical experience—that the only reason she was appointed to the position was to restructure the agency. Getter is suspicious because of the vague and mixed messages she and others have been getting, including claims that the review both is and is not about money, and that there has been no straight answer about a timeline. The staff “are all in fear for their jobs, and for their clients also,” she said.

That’s understandable, said Martin, but she hopes that staff will stay on and participate in the evaluation and planning. “It’s not like next month we’re going to be gone,” she said.

Staff at the clinic said they were not free to speak on the subject.

Rose speculated that something more than money might be behind the interest in reviewing the center’s operations. “I’m wondering if we’ve stepped on political toes because we were involved in the Boxley case, the Adam Clayton Powell III case,” she mused.

Meanwhile, county legislators are hearing from their constituents. At Monday’s Albany County Legislature meeting (Nov. 8), when Martin’s appointment was sent to the law committee, Gary Domalewicz (District 11) addressed the legislature, saying he wanted to let it be known that he was against any privatization of the center. “It would have to come here, and I promise you a vigorous fight,” he said after the meeting, noting that the legislature is “normally the last to know.” He added that they had already made their feelings on privatization clear in May’s vote against allowing NAPA Auto Parts to take over a unit of the Public Works Department.

—Miriam Axel-Lute


overheard: “I didn’t expect it to be a revival tonight.”

“Well, in a way, that’s exactly what it is.”

—Couple leaving
Howard Dean’s Monday
night talk at the Egg

What a Week

We Still Have Some Standards

A federal judge has ruled that President Bush contradicted current policy and ignored the Geneva Conventions when he declared detainees at Guantánamo naval base were not prisoners of war, and set up military commissions to try them as war criminals. In response to the judge’s ruling, a Justice Department spokesman reiterated the administration’s position that war detainees from Afghanistan should not be granted POW status, and that this controversial presidential declaration makes trial by military commission legal.

And the Hits Keep Coming

According to sources close to the White House, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales is expected to replace John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General. Ashcroft announced his resignation Tuesday (Nov. 9). Gonzales has supported the administration’s policy of detaining terrorism-related suspects for long periods of time without being allowed access to lawyers or actually being charged with any crimes. He also supported a 2002 administration proposal that would waive anti-torture laws and international treaties regarding prisoners of war.

So Close, and Yet

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) is a Democrat progressives can be comfortable with. Among many consistently progressive stands, he’s been reliably pro-choice. So it’s good that he’s the likely next minority whip in the Senate, a job that includes rounding up votes for a filibuster on judicial nominees. But it would be even better if he weren’t playing second fiddle to Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.), the expected next Senate minority leader, and an established anti-choice voice.

Drunk Driving OK, Helping a Friend Not

The Supreme Court has ruled in the case of a Haitian immigrant that drunk driving, even drunk driving that caused serious bodily injury, is not a “crime of violence” that makes someone deportable. The immigrant in that case was allowed to return home. Odd, since the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement argued in the local case of Ansar Mahmood, who was deported for violating immigration law because he helped friends with expired visas get an apartment, that any felony was not only deportable, but must result in deportation, under the 1996 immigration reforms. Which is it, folks?

The Doctor Is Back In

Overflow crowd listens to Howard Dean rally Democrats for the future

During a recent Capital Region appearance, former Vermont governor and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Howard Dean shed some light on the nation’s growing cultural divide and posed a few solutions—but only to those fortunate enough to get a seat.

An immense crowd packed the lobby of the Egg performing arts center last Monday (Nov. 8) in order to hear the onetime shoo-in for the Democratic nomination speak on “The Long-Term Implications of the Presidential Election 2004.” Event organizers from Empire State College had their hands full though, as all of the 400-or-so seats in the Lewis A. Swyer Theatre were reserved by Monday morning, forcing ESC to turn away scores of hopeful attendees who
hadn’t made use of the “suggested” seat-reservation process.

“This is ridiculous,” announced a
middle-aged woman in a “Dean ’04” shirt after finding out that she wouldn’t be able to attend the lecture. “Why would they pick the smallest theater [in the Egg] for something like this?”

While ESC representatives acknowledged that the event had drawn a far larger crowd than anticipated, they declined to comment on whether moving the event to the Egg’s 982-seat Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre was an option.

Those who did make it into the theater formed a crowd of various ages and ethnicities, and versions of Dean’s 2004 campaign motif on shirts, stickers or pins were sported by attendees young and old. At times, the event took on the air of a Democratic campaign rally, with wild applause punctuating nearly every sentence uttered by the night’s speaker and criticisms of the Republican Party peppering the lecture.

Early in the night, Dean poked fun at the final days of his own campaign while saluting the efforts of voter-registration volunteers who journeyed to nearby swing states.

“It is important to do more than just vote,” he began, quickly switching into an imitation of the enthusiastic speech many considered to be the final nail in his campaign coffin.

“And I’ve met more people who went to Pennsylvania, or Iowa, or Ohio, or South Carolina, or Michigan or California! Yeah!” he shouted.

Later in the night, Dean explained that his infamous yell was not nearly as epic an event as the media had portrayed it, since the combination of a microphone rigged to drown out background noise and cameras that cropped out most of the speech’s audience offered a far different version of the moment than reality.

“There were 1,200 kids in that hall that had worked their hearts out for me for three weeks in Iowa,” he said. “We didn’t win, and I wanted to give them a big cheer-up speech. . . . But the cameras had me prancing around like a madman.”

Throughout the 45-minute speech, Dean frequently drew upon stories and experiences he had accumulated while ascending the political ladder to illustrate his position on key issues of the recent presidential campaign, as well as the differences between his stance, that of the Republican Party, and in some cases, that of the National Democratic Party. According to Dean, only by exploring and understanding these differences would the nation ever be able to find common ground.

Dean claimed that divisive issues such as gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights are more appealing to Republicans because the polarized response associated with each issue creates an instant, dedicated support base for the party. And, he added, it’s the Republicans’ ability to make these issues the sole focus of a campaign—aided by both media and public acceptance of this simplified platform—that has caused the United States’ cultural divide to grow.

“If you look at Americans, no matter what kind of people we are, we have 95 percent of what we care about in common, and 5 percent makes us different,” he said, arguing that politicians should spend the bulk of their campaigns discussing the more common goals of society, such as education and employment. “Doesn’t it make more sense to concentrate on the 95 percent of the things that bring us together than the 5 percent of things that separate us?”

To illustrate his point, Dean explained how a recent conversation with an anti-choice friend became a microcosm of the liberal-conservative divide. After trying in vain to convince one another of the inconsistencies in each position, they finally agreed that both of their interests would be served if they simply devoted their efforts to reducing the number of abortions occurring each year. When the goal that everyone agrees upon is kept in focus, notions such as the introduction of abstinence alternatives and parental consent for abortions will begin to appeal to both sides, and progress toward the common goal can begin, he said.

While Dean spent much of his lecture discussing methods for unifying the nation, the question-and-answer period that followed his speech—and lasted longer than the speech itself—provided a reminder of how difficult bridging the nation’s cultural divide is likely to be.

When a self-described “right-winger” discussed her reasons for voting Republican in the recent election, the largely Democratic crowd suddenly took an aggressive turn, shouting and issuing a chorus of boos that drowned out much of the speaker’s words. After calming the audience and letting the speaker have her say, Dean explained the myth of “partial-birth abortions” to the speaker, who had used the outlawing of such practices as justification for her vote.

“Partial-birth abortion doesn’t exist,” he said, adding that the term is most frequently employed by anti-choice candidates to refer to the late-term abortions—of which very few actually occur each year.

Despite Dean’s insistence that she be heard, after the woman first left the mic, she returned to tell the crowd that another woman in line had just told her to “Drop dead.”

Dean also laughed off a question about his political future, saying, “It’s a lot easier to run for president when you have no idea what you’re getting into.” He also declined to make any clear statement about the rumors regarding a possible presidency of the Democratic National Committee. One thing he did commit to, however, is a continued presence in both the Democratic Party and the national body politic as a force for change.

“One thing this nation doesn’t need is a ‘Republican lite,’ ” he announced, to a loud round of applause. “If that’s what we are when we win, then what have we accomplished?”

—Rick Marshall

Loose Ends

Rensselaer County assistant district attorney Joseph Ahearn, who recently was tapped as a Republican candidate for City Court judge when the incumbent, Henry Bauer, was removed from the bench [“Reorder in the Court,” Trail Mix, Oct. 21], has been nominated by the Troy City Council to replace Bauer in the interim, as expected. . . . After many protestations that its policy was just fine, and in the face of several controversial chases, some of which broke the existing rules, the Albany Police Department has tightened its rules on “hot pursuit” [“Case Closed, Questions Open,” Newsfront, May 13]. Officers now have less discretion about when to terminate a chase, and must give possibility of danger to the public more weight. The APD also is considering a policy that would keep officers from firing at a vehicle unless someone in the car was threatening deadly force with something other than the vehicle itself. The department has been tracking its pursuits since May.
. . . A private engineer’s report commissioned by the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association has found that the Madison Theater is basically sound, except for a lot of mold and mildew from water damage, and a flooded basement. The roof probably needs replacing, the report said, but quoted an earlier estimate of about $30,000 for that work, not the hundreds of thousands suggested by CVS representatives, who are interested in the property [“A Dose of Suburbia,” Sept. 23].

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