February 23, 2006

Keeping our babies safe?

During last nights freeholder meeting the board was again having us focus our attention on their child seat safety inspection initiative. They have been toting this “initiative” going on 4 years now. It’s a warm fuzzy issue for them to hide behind. After all what is more important than keeping our babies safe? As the chairman of the board so gushingly rhetorically asked in his closing comments.

I raised my hand to answer, but he wouldn’t call on me.

I wanted to tell him that the juveniles who are incarcerated in the Union County Detention Center were once someone’s babies, and as teenagers are still loved by their families, and since Juvenile Detention is a basic county service and the county budget is now at 413-million dollars and their car seat inspection initiative only costs about $75,000 a year (which I’m pretty sure is covered by a state grant) why can’t they run a humane juvenile detention center before they inspect our car seats?

As fate would have it, that night the Daily Show did a skit with a new dad taking care of his infant. They showed John Steward driving a convertible with a baby on his head. Car seat safety brings another image to mind, the recent photos of Brittney Spears driving with her baby on her lap.

Given the mentality of the public and the county’s in-house million dollar public information department, it’s hard to get the point across to county residents that the freeholders are spinning us to death. I have my own rhetorical question: Do we need county government to check our car seats or do we need them to run basic governmental services?

Every year the freeholders use pictures of this child seat inspection initiative in both their taxpayer-funded and pay-to-play funded campaign literature.

If we had a healthy democracy in Union County, which we don’t, while campaigning for re-election the freeholders would be forced to answer for the way they ignored rules, regulations and even kept juveniles locked up in filthy, unsafe cells for the past ten years, which resulted in a 17 year old hanging himself on an exposed sprinkler head that was sited by the state as a suicide hazard 17 months prior to his death, yet the county didn’t bother to repair it. The abuse didn’t stop there. County employees didn’t find the boy; it was his fellow inmates that happened upon him.

The last time the juvenile detention center issue was debated by the freeholders in public was when there was a two-party ruled freeholder board. Since the board turned one-party ruled the only thing being debated in pubic are warm and fuzzy issues.

At this same meeting the freeholder’s appropriated more funds for legal bills stemming from a law suit that was filed against the taxpayers for the 17 years olds death in 2003. I spoke at the meeting and brought up documentation I had received recently through an Open Public Records Act request. These documents show that the state inspected the Union County detention center in December of 2004 and found 18 suicide hazards. The state didn’t bother to do a re-check of their findings until the following year. A report dated December 2005 shows that out of these 18 suicide hazards noted the county had only addressed 7; 4 were partially address; and 7 went ignored by the county, just as the sprinkler head did for 17 months prior to a boys death.

Checking our child safety seats makes for nice photo ops. No freeholder would be caught inside that detention center checking that suicide hazards are taken care of. In fact, since the boy’s death the county did away with the Juvenile Detention freeholder liaison so no one freeholder could be held accountable for the way the detention center is run.

When I raised questions about the suicide prevention inspection documents it was the director of the facility that offered up excuses for the county’s inactions. The freeholders weren’t familiar with the documentation that I sited. Apparently they don’t even bother to check the states inspection findings. They must be spending all their time posing for photo ops at child seat inspections.