Jun 15 2009

MSARC Resolution

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County

Today the Shelby County Commission unanimously approved a resolution by Commissioner Ritz to assume control of MSARC. The resolution includes the creation of a Victim’s Services Board, but was soft on funding and other details. Ritz’s resolution was an alternative to the one brought by Commissioner Mike Carpenter, but it is currently not available on the County Commission’s site.

This is a victory for victim’s advocates and the community at large for several reasons. First, it places all victims services under the purview of one governmental agency rather than splitting the duties across two. Hopefully this will not only create efficiencies, but also ensure better continuity of service. Secondly, by creating a “Victim’s Services Board” it ensures that the community is providing direct community oversight to avoid the problems that ultimately lead us to this circumstance. Finally, but perhaps least importantly, it takes a regional service and places it with every other regional service in the area, the County.

There are a lot of people that need to be thanked for their hard work, advocacy, and continued push for a solution to the failures that led to this change including; Mid-South Peace and Justice, Memphis Area Women’s Council, elected officials on the City Council and County Commission who advocated for the shift, and finally, Mayor Herenton and Mayor Wharton. Without their leadership in coming together to find a solution, MSARC may have been caught between a rock and a hard place for some time.

There are still a lot of issues to be resolved. The audit initiated by the city, currently scheduled to be completed in the next 60 to 90 days will, perhaps, shed some light on what led to the initial failure, and hopefully provide some learning on how to avoid this in the future. How MSARC will be integrated into the County is also an issue that is a bit murky, despite the actions of the County Commission tonight. Finally, how the Victim’s Services Board will operate, and who gets appointed to it is, perhaps the biggest unresolved non-operational issues going forward.

The community is watching, and we expect transparency and accountability. As new developments come to light, I’ll report them here. Until then, here’s to hoping that MSARC can regain and maintain its place as a national model, not only in the way it’s organized, but also in the care and quality of services it provides.

Jun 06 2009

MSARC – The Timeline

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, City of Memphis, Shelby County

I’ve been doing a lot of organizing and digging on the MSARC issue over the past several days. In addition to the audio of the last Executive Session of the Memphis City Council, I’ve been working to create a comprehensive directory of government actions, community activism, news reports, and blog posts dealing with the MSARC crisis. That directory can be found here.

There’s still a lot of work to be done on this resource, including editing and posting the audio from the Memphis City Council meeting that really started up the firestorm. This meeting took place back on May 19th, and was, perhaps, the point at which members of the Memphis City Council, as well as members of the community really lost faith in the Herenton administration’s handling of the problem.

You will remember, May 19th was about 21 days after the first reports of service failures hit the media, and one day after the Mayor announced the partnership with Le Bonheur.

While the partnership with Le Bonheur was seen by some as a step in the right direction, it failed to deal with the adult victims of rape in our community. Child victims of rape make up 50% of the caseload at MSARC. This arrangement left the other 50% and advocates for their care wondering if they would be treated in the event they were victimized.

Further complicating the issue is the de-centralization of victim’s services. Rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in our society. 60% of sexual assault victims never report the crime (Source, RAINN). Victim’s advocates assert that de-centralizing the care of victims of sexual assault further complicates the issue, making the reporting of an already emotionally traumatic crime, even more daunting for the victim.

There were over 200 reported rapes in Memphis each of the last two years. Using the statistics from RAINN this means some 300 victims of sexual assault in Memphis alone never reported the crime (Ed. Note: This is a correction from a previous post where I made a math error in calculating the percentage of under-reports).

Following the announcement by Mayor Herenton, The Memphis City Council, in Executive Session, met with the administrators charged with overseeing MSARC. It was in this meeting that several members of the City Council walked out, due to the lack of response by these administrators.

One could argue that this action, leaving the meeting, was exactly the kind of “political posturing” that the Mayor complained about in June 2nd Executive Session of the City Council. What few have mentioned is that it is the role of the legislative body to oversee the effectiveness of divisions of the executive. The failure to report the actions being taken to rectify the issues at MSARC to the City Council is exactly the same kind of “disrespect” that the Mayor complained he was suffering from at the hands of the media, activists, and politicians.

What is even more remarkable about this reality is that while Mayor Herenton complained about the lack of respect he’d received by these same media, activist, and political figures in his June 2nd appearance before the Executive Session of the City Council, he made no bones about his direction to the directors responsible for MSARC to not answer questions brought by the council. The Mayor wants to have it both ways. He wants to be “respected” but, through this action, does not feel he needs to return this respect to elected officials charged with serving the very same voters that ultimately elected the Mayor.

This brings up an interesting question for the Mayor. Just what would he have the members of the City Council do in the face of an informational blackout from his administration, a service failure that adversely effects the victims of a heinous crime, not to mention complicating prosecutions of those crimes, and a great deal of pressure from the media and advocacy groups whose interest isn’t political, despite the Mayor’s protestations, but aligned with the needs of the victims?

Does the Mayor expect the City Council to ignore its charge of oversight and simply trust him? Why, some 3 weeks after the first media report of the service failures at MSARC would ANY member of the City Council give the Mayor this kind of “blind faith” when his administration had done little to publicly or privately address the concerns of these three groups outside of the, at that time, recently announced partnership with Le Bonheur?

Several commentators have opined that the Council failed to follow protocol, and sought to “go over the Mayor’s head” in their proposals for MSARC. While the talks with County officials on May 22nd by City Council Chairman Lowery may have been viewed as an “overstep”, the reality is that this service failure, and the unwillingness by the administration to address it to those concerned was a three-ring circus in need of a tent, which the Mayor provided.

The truth of the matter is that the Mayor’s “modus operandi” is the VERY THING that helped stoke the flames of outrage in the community, and the VERY THING that continues to sustain it. Internalizing the paths taken, freezing out those who have a vested interest in the eventual solution, and railing against “well connected constituencies” may score the Mayor political points on other issues, but on an issue such as victims services, these protestations largely fall on deaf ears, particularly when the most affected communities exist in the heart of the Mayor’s electoral base.

Herenton completely misses the point when he complains about these “special interest groups” and their “agenda”. Their agenda, despite the Mayor’s perspective, is to ensure that no victim of rape or any other sexual assault goes without the physical and emotional treatment needed for them to heal, not to mention the legal aspect of carrying out prosecutions on a crime that is one of the most difficult crimes on which to gain a conviction.

The Mayor, through his rhetoric, has chosen to personalize the dissent in the community to be about him rather than about serving the victims in the most effective and comprehensive way possible. While most dissent may not have been focused on the Mayor before, his condescending and adversarial posture toward these groups has forced their hand, and helped turn a discussion that should have been about victims to a battle of personalities that never should have entered the conversation. This is a devastating turn of events for the victims.

So here we are now, some 5 and a half weeks since the initial report of problems at MSARC. On Tuesday, the Mayor asserted that the problems have been solved and that MSARC is back up to full operational staffing levels. Unfortunately, the just yesterday ANOTHER instance of a recent failure at MSARC was reported. Mayor Herenton may assert that MSARC is fixed, but unfortunately, the facts don’t support this assertion.

Yesterday, I laid out my argument for moving MSARC to the County. I would ask people who support the movement of MSARC from City to County government to measure their rhetoric carefully. Focusing words around the Mayor’s consistent strategy to make EVERY ISSUE surrounding the City about race or some personal issue only plays into his hands politically. This has been, for some time, an effective strategy for the Mayor, upon which he has won countless elections and political battles. Unfortunately, in this case it leaves out the most important people in the equation, the victims.

Ultimately, that’s ALL this should be about, serving the victims of a crime that is one of the most brutal violations of both their body and a threat to their emotional stability. We can debate whether these victims would be better served by the City or County, but in the end, it is serving the victims that is most important, not the politics, or the personalization that the Mayor, or anyone else, would seek to use to galvanize their base for any particular agenda, regardless of what side they might find themselves.

Government’s first duty is to protect the people. By making this issue about personalities, not only are the people not protected, but the debate is diverted from the real issue, to side issues that don’t serve the public good in the long run.

Jun 05 2009

More on MSARC

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, City of Memphis, Shelby County

This morning’s Commercial Appeal has two articles dealing with MSARC. The first, addresses the reality behind one of the victims from Bartlett who was left to wait 3 hours with a frustrated Bartlett Detective only to find out help was not on the way. The second article deals with the actions of the City and County governments working to determine which entity, City or County government, MSARC fits best with.

Yesterday, Mediaverse-Memphis wrote a post that seems on the face of it to allege any and all discussion of moving MSARC from the City to County government is about politics.

This move isn’t about tax equity. It isn’t about getting other municipalities to pay their fair share for a service that they allegedly use for free.

It is simply about sending a message to Mayor Herenton, who sent a message of his own to the Council Tuesday.

I couldn’t disagree more. Strickland’s proposal is about putting an organization that serves a regional constituency where it belongs, with the County, just like the Health Dept. and other victim’s services. The difference between the Health Dept., and MSARC is that the Health Dept. is mandated by the state, MSARC is not. So, defunding the Health Dept. means that the County is legally bound to take up funding, which they have done. With MSARC, defunding this program means the County could, if it so desires, pick up the program. Several members of the County Commission have expressed interest in doing so.

Listen to the exchange between Strickland and Herenton (6:45). His intentions are both well stated and reasoned. It is Herenton who is politicizing this issue by “resenting” the “public outcry” at the failures of service under his watch. Listen to Herenton’s response starting at 3:10 in the above referenced clip. At 4:45 into the clip Herenton admits that he looked at a County solution for the problem, but turned away from it in the face of public outcry and activism.

Are you serious? In this statement the Mayor has CLEARLY stated that he would rather do what is politically expedient for his administration RATHER than do what is, by his own admission, right for MSARC. This is, quite simply, an unbelievable admission.

In his opening comments (starting at 5:50), the Mayor expressed that he did not know much if anything about MSARC before the failures of last April. This too is a stunning admission, coming from an administrator, the “CEO of the city”, who has held office for some 18 years. MSARC began as the result of a push from victim’s advocates well before the Mayor took office (1975 according to the city site). It should come as no surprise to the Mayor that any failures of the system would be met with a great deal of public outcry after working to create this service. While the Mayor may feel that he has adequately addressed the issue, the lack of transparency coming out of his office, and his propensity to install former bodyguards in positions garnering six figures, as well as the failures at MSARC, make it difficult for those who have spent their lives advocating for victims, to take the Mayor at his word that the problem has been fixed. Councilwoman Halbert’s call for transparency is a clear sign of that lack of confidence.

Perhaps the only thing good that came out of the meeting on Tuesday from the Mayor was his call for all of us to be outraged by crime in our community, regardless of whom it effects. I agree Mr. Mayor, but in the process, we must also do what is right for the victims of crime, not react politically to a situation that may look bad in the public eye.

Herenton stated in the meeting that MSARC was back up to full operational capacity. The words of Dr. Winters the newly installed head of MSARC, are somewhat reassuring, but the Mayor’s unwillingness to address all the concerns of the council with his “you’ll know it when I make it” response is unnerving.

In the end, this whole issue is not about outrage, race, activists, the media, or anything else the Mayor would point at to distract us…it’s about the victims. Herenton’s actions and general posture towards the activists whose primary interest is the victims only strengthens Strickland’s view that MSARC should fall under the purview of County Government. By looking at their actions though a political lens, rather than that of victim’s advocates, the Mayor has further damaged his credibility and acted in bad faith.

Mayor Herenton, taking responsibility is little comfort when, on the other hand, you’re also trying to save face politically.

I’m working on putting together an MSARC resource page that lists all the news stories, blog posts, resolutions, and audio from City and County meetings. This page can be found here. Please submit links to relevant articles by going to the contact page and emailing them to me. I’ll be updating this page as relevant news and information emerges.

Jun 02 2009

Playing Politics with MSARC

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County

Today, in Executive Session, the Memphis City Council met with Mayor Herenton concerning the problems facing the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, MSARC. MSARC has been in the news quite a bit over the past several weeks, after 2 area victims were turned away due to staffing issues. I wrote about this late last week, but the events of today’s Executive Session warrant another post.

The meeting began with some comments by the Mayor, but really heated up once the questions started flying. There were two moments when the hair on my arms and legs literally stood up. I livetweeted the meeting. What follows is a distillation of one of these two exchanges.

Strickland: You agree the health dept. should be funded by the Co. gov’t. MSARC fits hand in glove with Health Dept. model. What is different with MSARC?

Herenton: Hidden agendas on Council and County gov’t. Most people didn’t give a damn about victims. More interested in politics. Activists and media convoluted situation in a way that I resent.

Now, I understand that this is not a transcript, but audio will be on the Council site tomorrow or Thursday for confirmation. I’ve confirmed that this is essentially what was said by 3 different sources on the scene. This sounds like the Mayor is playing politics with MSARC. At the very least, he’s being inconsistent. The Health Department and Domestic Violence services are currently handled by the County, why not MSARC? Because politicians, activists and the media “convoluted the situation”? Are you serious?

After the Executive Session Council member Jim Strickland proposed moving MSARC to the County and also said he will propose to cut funding for MSARC, essentially leaving it for the County to administer. Yesterday, the County Commission rolled a proposal by Commissioner Mike Carpenter (@mikecarpenter1)to take responsibility for MSARC (Resolution (.pdf) Should Strickland’s actions pass, the road would be paved for the county to take over MSARC without Herenton’s approval.

Tonight, WMCTV will have more coverage of the meeting. I’ll update the post once that piece airs, and include a more comprehensive transcript once the audio is available on the City Council site. Below is the report from the 5pm broadcast.

You can read the live tweet of the meeting here.

Special thanks to WMCTV and their twitter feed @actionnews5 for informing me about and streaming the event.

May 29 2009

It’s About the Victims

Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis, Shelby County

For weeks now we’ve been hearing about the city’s failure to maintain staffing and round the clock operations of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center (MSARC). Wednesday, the Shelby County Commission moved a resolution out of committee that would allow the County Mayor to present a proposal to operate MSARC. The resolution was added on to the committee meeting Wednesday, and as of yet, has not been put on the online system. Hopefully the text will be available online in the coming days.

While the possibility of the County assuming responsibility for MSARC has some promise, the reality for the victims of rape and other sexual assaults in the area is that they will not only have to suffer the consequences of a horrific crime committed against them, but they will also have to navigate a system that is broken.

According to the 2008 preliminary FBI crime report Memphis had 210 reported rapes in 2007, and 201 in 2008. RAINN has some startling statistics about the reality of this crime. Only 60% of rapes are actually reported. If this statistic holds true here, the number of rapes in Memphis is somewhere near one a day.

Considering that just 60% of rapes are actually reported, can you imagine how much the number of reported rapes could decline when victims, already suffering from severe emotional and physical trauma of the assault, are faced with the possibility of dealing with an agency that has been allowed to fall into disrepair? What are the long-term physical and emotional implications for the victims of this crime? What about the public safety element? If rapes aren’t reported the people who commit this crime cannot be held to account. This situation is devastating for a community that has, unfortunately, become accustomed to such failures from the City.

In most instances, my first reaction to news of this nature would be to look to the responsible authority and demand accountability, but this is not about politics or politicians, it’s about taking care of the victims. If the City can’t or won’t fix the problem, then they need to cede control to a body that can and will. In the meantime, victims of sexual assault are left with a system that once was a model for care, but has become a victim of neglect.

For more information also see this article from Sunday’s Commercial Appeal.