I keep expecting someone to step out from behind a potted plant and say, “Smile! You’re on candid camera!” and then all of America will laugh and breathe a sigh of relief. After the nervous giggles pass and we finish pretending we knew it all along, we will go home and think long and hard about what would have happened had the whole thing been true.

And by “the whole thing,” I mean Donald Trump.

About an hour ago I learned that Ben Carson endorsed Trump. I was never a Carson fan, but from what I understand he isn’t a bad guy or anything. And clearly he’s brilliant, right? He’s a brain surgeon for crying out loud. He’s apparently also popular among “evangelicals,” which may just be the most over- and improperly used word in American media today.

Right now I’m watching a clip of a young black man being sucker punched in the face at a Trump rally by a long-haired man in a cowboy hat. This just a week or so after the Guy in the Red Hat went verbally psycho on Black Lives Matter protestors, and a couple of weeks after Chris Christie’s takeover by Trump-loving aliens.

Have I mentioned the KKK or “small hands” yet? No? Well there are those things, too.

Where’s a potted plant when you need one?

I’m about 99% sure that in 20 years we’re going to find out (assuming there’s no hidden camera, anyway) that this was all a conspiracy. I don’t know if Democrats paid Trump to run to ensure a Democrat would win, or if Trump is paying people to vote for and/or endorse him, or threatening their families, but something fishy must be going on here. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

Because that alternative is that there are a whole lot of people in America willing to vote for someone who, whether he himself is or isn’t, doesn’t mind giving off the air of a misogynistic, jingoistic, racist megalomaniac.

The hateful and insulting comments, the atrocious proposed policies, the lack of knowledge and experience to hold the most powerful office in the world, and all those other, more obvious scary Trump traits are one thing. The hate and violence and anger at his rallies and among his supporters are another. The “get ‘em out of heres,” and the “I want to punch him in the face,” and the screaming, punching, “go home” sign-wielding Americans frighten me, sadden me, overwhelm me, embarrass me, and sicken me. They drive me to an eschatological place I don’t want to be.

I get it to a certain point. He’s an outsider. He speaks him mind. His aura is one of success and confidence. He’s sort of like the bad boy/girl you might date in high school. You know what almost universally holds true about those relationships? They end. You don’t marry the bad guy/girl, or if you do, you regret it/get divorced/change the person/change yourself. Four to eight years of damaging, dangerous, and damning governance is a lot of regret. It’s also a long time to stay married to someone you can’t stand. That leaves two options: change him or change yourself.

I won’t say Trump won’t or can’t change. His efforts at self-moderation these last few days have been apparent. Clearly he gets that he needs to be “more presidential,” but in the end, he ends up right where he started: acting as the lowest common denominator. I won’t pretend to know Trump’s internal affairs, but if I had to guess, I’d say the odds of him changing are pretty darn low. So then, will he change me? Will he change us? Change America? I’d like to think he can’t. That even if elected that we’d somehow stand strong against him, singing Kumbaya in front of the White House while patchouli wafts through the air and babies coo from their mama’s and daddy’s slings and front packs and toddlers munch on homemade gluten-free granola.

But I never have liked the smell of patchouli and my kids are far too big for slings and front packs. I can also hear the bullhorn now: “Get ‘em out of here!”

It’s scary folks, really scary. This isn’t about electing a politician with whom we disagree, even on very, very important things such as cluster bombs. Perhaps it sounds extreme, but I would go so far as to say that this is about good vs. evil. Not that Trump is evil, or that Trump supporters are evil. No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is, have you ever read Lord of the Flies? Remember Piggy? When you put a lot of non-evil people who have some not-too-kind ideas together in a big melting pot and stir them together—viola!—you get something pretty darn ugly.

Since I still don’t see a potted plant anywhere around, and since I may not ever know if there’s a conspiracy or not, I’m going to have to assume that this is real. Trump himself may be fake—I suspect that in many ways he is—but the voters… the voters are real. If they are both real and numerous enough to put Trump in the White House, I will be so scared, so sad, and so morally wounded that I may have to learn to bake my own granola and enjoy the smell of patchouli. But I’m still not putting my kids in a front pack.


As We Forgive Our Debtors

Foreign debt relief doesn’t seem all that enticing a topic.

It involves large numbers and terms like “hedge fund” that may not be as familiar to us as terms like “orphanage.”

I would dare to say that most of us love to help others.  To this end, we are spurred to advocacy by images of starving children, AIDS ravished families, and inadequate health- and educational facilities in third world countries.

Unfortunately, reading about internationally waged legal battles over billions of dollars of debt just doesn’t strike this same heart chord.  It’s an “over there” type of issue but without the moving pictures to “bring it home” to us.  It’s also a bit boring, frankly, and we tend to assume that what we’re hearing about is “fake money.”  For instance, when we read that Zambia must pay off a debt incurred in the 1980’s, but now with millions of dollars of interest added, it kind of slides through our ears as a ridiculous notion.  After all, one can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.

But there are those who know better.  They know that if they just keep wringing that turnip, they will eventually get blood.  God, the Catholic Church, and now the US through President Barack Obama, have all condemned this practice.  Given that the big guns have spoken on the issue, it is time that our community of social justice advocates takes a closer look at debt relief and its nemesis: vulture funds.

A Familiar Comparison

Most of us are familiar with debt collection agencies: Johnny fails to pay Company A the $100 he owes it.  Because it is a pain to go after Johnny’s $100, Company A agrees to sell its rights to the money to Company B for $10.  Eventually Johnny pays up, and Company B makes a $90 profit.

This isn’t such a bad set up—after all, Johnny incurred a debt that he’s obligated to repay,  and what does it matter to Johnny if he pays $100 to Company A or Company B?  Either way Johnny is out the cash.

That’s a nice and neat scenario, but what if Johnny didn’t borrow the money?  What if instead, his wife, who has now run off with the mailman and is nowhere to be found, borrowed it in Johnny’s name without his permission?  Or what if Johnny did borrow the money, but he did it to pay off hospital bills incurred from an on-the-job injury, then because of that same injury, expenses snowballed and now he’s penniless?

A Different Sort of Collection Agency: Vulture Funds

There are “collection agencies” that buy the debt of entire countries.  They buy it for pennies on the dollar, then go after the whole shebang plus exorbitant amounts of interest.  These people are called “vulture capitalists,” and they run what have been come to be called “vulture funds.”

Here’s what the experts have to say about these funds:

Often, these companies operate with little transparency as shell companies (a company set up exclusively to pursue one goal, in this case, poor country debt).  Vulture funds are known to be established in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands to avoid financial constraints and oversight.  Often, because of the secretive incorporation strategies and locales, there is limited or no information on who actually owns and manages these vulture funds. 

As of late 2011, 16 of 40 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) surveyed by the IMF were facing litigation in 78 individual cases brought by commercial creditors.  Of these, 36 cases have resulted in court judgments against HIPCs amounting to approximately $1 billion on original claims worth roughly $500 million.

The main reason these guys are called “vultures” is that they specifically target countries that are close to having their debt partially or totally forgiven.  Debt forgiveness is a practice put into place to provide systematic debt relief for the poorest countries so that these countries can instead spend their limited funds on eradicating poverty.

Poor countries that are eligible for debt cancellation are especially vulnerable.  Vulture funds have been known to track the debt relief process, buy debt of nations that are going to get debt relief and then sue the country after it has received a windfall of resources thanks to debt cancellation.

An equivalent example might be marrying a rich person because you know they are just about to die and you want all their money.  Vulture-y indeed.

Yes, but if the country had paid back its debt to begin with, this would never have happened, right?



Almost always—or dare I say just “always”—the reasons for default are out of the peoples’ hands: natural disaster, unforeseeable financial crisis, and, more often than not, corrupt leaders who rack up debt knowing that they, personally, will never have to worry about paying it back out of their own pockets.  For example, Rwanda is paying off debts from the government responsible for its genocide, and South Africa is paying off debts from the Apartheid regime.  Like Johnny and his no-good wife, someone else has signed on the dotted line, agreeing to give your life away.

That doesn’t seem fair to us, but it still isn’t necessarily an enticing topic.  Where are the images of starving children?  Of poor women with tired eyes and strong hands?  Who cares if a government—a corrupt one at that—has its hand slapped and is dragged through court for years on end?

We should.

We are smart and sophisticated.  We know that poverty is the root of much of the world’s problems, yet we often feel helpless to fight it at a deeper level—at the root.

Envision many of the world’s problems as an enormous tree.  The roots—poverty—are sunk deeply and stretching into the ground.  The yawning branches above include inadequate education, lack of clean drinking water, famine, AIDS orphans, and all the other issues that spur our hearts to action.  Cutting the branches is a good thing, but I would argue that we are not actually helpless to address the deeper issues; we can indeed fight poverty at its root.

A significant way of doing this is advocating and volunteering for, and donating to, programs that advocate for both debt relief and for the end of vulture funds.  As governments struggle to pay back debts plus exorbitant interest to these vulture funds, they are forced to levy taxes and fees on the most basic of necessities.  Governments are unable to establish the services its people need, such as hospitals and schools, because all the money is going to paying back not just debt, but debt quadrupled by unfair and predatory practices.


When you donate $1 a week to an AIDS orphan,
pen letters to a young girl who is going to school on your dime,
write a check to fund clean drinking water,

how great would it be if the countries your money is going to could afford

to buy anti-viral drugs,
to build adequate schools,
to provide necessary infrastructure

instead of spending all their money on paying back decade’s old debt that somebody else incurred?

Forgive the Debt, Lose the Vultures

Poverty is the root of the heartstring problems, and when vulture funds swoop in, buy a country’s debt, then add on exorbitant interest, these problems only get worse.  Strike the root, and the tree will fall.

The Biblical importance of ending poverty can be found in Deuteronomy 15:4 (“There will be no one in need among you”), and in Leviticus 25, which sets forth the laws of Jubilee, a periodic pardon of debt when the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.  Economic experts speculate that

Such “clean slate” decrees were intended [by Babylonian kings] to redress the tendency of debtors, in ancient societies, to become hopelessly in debt to their creditors, thus accumulating most of the arable land into the control of a wealthy few.

This sounds very familiar even in our modern times—remember the rally cry “We are the 99%?”

…the Biblical legislation of the Jubilee and Sabbatical years addressed the same problems encountered by these Babylonian kings, but the Biblical formulation of the laws presented a significant advance in justice and the rights of the people.  (emphasis added).

If God wants to significantly advance justice and the rights of the people by wiping the slate clean, who are we to disagree?

As a nation of do-gooders, we must not simply work to make sure “there will be no one in need among us.”  We must also fight those who exacerbate the injustices of the world.  When we fight vulture funds, we are digging up the roots.

So when you are sitting at the kitchen table going over finances long after the kids are in bed, debating how best to spend your limited time and funds to hack away at the branches of the poverty tree, I ask that you remember you are not helpless against its root.  Sadly, there are no “ban vulture funds” mission trips.  There is no “fight vulture funds” equivalent to Habitat for Humanity where you can feel the weighty hammer in your hands and know you are building something lasting and of value.  But there are ways you can help.  There are organizations, such as Jubilee USA, that fight vulture funds, and they need your help to fight the good fight.  So while we can’t hop on a plane and spend ten weeks battling vulture funds in Zambia, we can use our money, time, and voice to assist those, like Jubilee, who are banding together people of faith to act on the Godly principles of helping the orphan and widow, and forgiving debts, as we forgive our debtors.

If you’d like to help fight vulture funds, please visit https://www.crowdtilt.com/campaigns/help-fight-vulture-funds.

Week Links #13

Women’s Word

Rachel Held Evans: Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church

Amy Simpson: The Shadow of Schizophrenia: Where Was God Amid My Mom’s Mental Illness

Connie Jakab: Avoiding Pitfalls in Ministry Through Social Media

Catherine Newman: I Do Not Want My Daughter to be Nice

Words for Thought

Jonathan Merritt: Politics, patriotism, and pacifism: An interview with Stanley Hauerwas

Amy Julia Becker: A Real Happily-Every-After for Babies With Down Syndrome

Statistics on Abuse and Neglect of Children with Disabilities

My Stuff

Most read: The Back of the Ambulance

Week Links #9


Halee Gray Scott: Not-So-Pretty Little Liars

Words for Thought

Andrew Hanauer: A Politics of Love: What We Want

Christina Hoff Sommers: How to Get More Women (and Men) to Call Themselves Feminists

Derek Penwell: The Problem With Assuming Liberal Christians Hate the Bible

Ted Olsen: The Right Side of History is Full of Rewrites

Women’s Words

Hope Henchy: Youth Ministry’s Family Blind Spot

My Stuff

Most read this week: When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough

Week Links #8


Natasha Sistrunk Robinson: An Opportunity to Take Action Against Human Trafficking (people: click this link to support the estimated 27 million voiceless victims who are currently trapped in human trafficking.)

Angie Mabry–Nauta: Same-Sex Marriage, Mental Illness, and the Church: A Historic Intersection

Women’s Words

Glennon: Quit Pointing Your Avocado at Me!

and Glennon again: I Love Gay People and I Love Christians. I Choose All. (Please read the original piece as well!)

Rachel Held Evans @ Q: Modesty: I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means

Words for Thought

E.J. Dionne @ SF Chronicle: Court Conservatives Winning Battle for Power


Tim Kreider: I Know What You Think of Me

My Stuff

What SCOTUS Could Learn From Paula Deen

Mental Health Awareness Month: Dual Diagnosis

Author’s note: While I may some day turn this into a legal, scholarly article complete with footnotes, statistics, solutions, and multi-syllabic words, please take it for what it is today: a blog post. It is not meant to address every problem with mental health treatment within the foster care system, but it is meant to get people thinking.

During my 10 years as a foster youth advocate, and my 5 years an attorney representing children and parents in the foster care/dependency system, I became very familiar with the mental health double whammy of a dual diagnosis (also known as “co-occurring disorders”). The National Institute of Health (NIH) gives this very basic definition of dual diagnosis:

“A person with dual diagnosis has both a mental disorder and an alcohol or drug

Based on my 15 years of professional experience with the foster care system, I feel comfortable saying that a very large percentage of parents who are involved in that system suffer from both mental illness and drug/alcohol addiction, or, in other words, are dually diagnosed.

The Problem

When social services removes children from their parents’ care and places the children into foster homes, the parents are given a case plan that outlines what the parents must do to successfully reunify—in other words, what the parents must do to get the children back in the parents’ care. For a mentally ill parent, the case plan will include a mental health evaluation, the recommendations of which the parents must follow. This typically includes counseling and appropriate medication. For a drug or alcohol addicted parent, the parent must complete drug/alcohol treatment, and prove sobriety by passing a certain number of drug tests. So we have two directives: 1) get help for your mental illness (i.e. medication) and 2) get sober.

In the case of the dually diagnosed parent, a special problem presents itself: psychiatrists will not provide psychotropic medication to a person who has drugs in his or her system. Since many mentally ill people turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their illness, the requirement that a parent be completely substance free before psychotropic medications are prescribed is almost impossible to fulfill, thus creating a system of certain failure.

As the NIH explains:

“Sometimes the mental problem occurs first. This can lead people to use alcohol or
drugs that make them feel better temporarily. [self-medication] Sometimes the
substance abuse occurs first. Over time, that can lead to emotional and mental

“Someone with a dual diagnosis must treat both conditions. For the treatment to be
effective, the person needs to stop using alcohol or drugs. Treatments may include
behavioral therapy, medicines, and support groups.”

A Hypothetical

Consider a mother who has her children removed from her home because of her rampant drug use. After beginning her case plan, which includes a mental health evaluation, it comes to light that the mother had previously been diagnosed as bi-polar, and the current evaluator agrees. The mother is ordered by the judge to comply with the recommendations of a mental health professional. The mental health professional suggests that the mother be placed on lithium to treat her bi-polar disorder. That same mental health professional, however, refuses to provide the mother with a prescription until she has at least 30-days of sobriety, as proved by random drug testing. Because the mother is self-medicating her bi-polar disorder, she cannot stay off drugs for the required amount of time. Because she is not off drugs, she cannot get the lithium, therefore she cannot get off the drugs. As is apparent: this is a Catch 22.

Difficulties in Treatment and Reduced Odds of Reunification

There are some residential drug treatment programs that can help a person obtain sobriety for long enough to receive psychotropic medication; however, the beds in these program fill up quickly, and many will not take a patient with a dual diagnosis. The residential programs that are specifically designed for those with a dual diagnosis are few and far between, and of course, funding and space are always short.

Compounding this problem is a general culture of stigmatization, especially where dual diagnosis is in play, as well as an assumption that the parent will fail. Not all judges, attorneys, and social workers buy in to this line of thinking, but I would argue that the overall culture of the foster care system is one of misunderstanding and stigmatizing the mentally ill (including mentally ill children, but that’s a topic for another post).

For instance, one thing that often bothered me about the reports social workers write to summarize their interactions with parents is the common use of the word “admit” in connection to mental illness. Example: “Mother admits she suffers from depression.” Or, “Father admits he takes Prozac for his depression.” Or, “Mother admits to often being overcome by anxiety.” One “admits” to stealing or lying. One does not “admit” to feeling depressed or anxious, or to taking necessary medication to bring a very real illness under control. When mental illness is couched in terms of a crime, it is viewed as a crime.

In such a culture, the odds of a parent successfully reunifying with his or her children is drastically reduced, if not completely obliterated.

The Solution

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, only a small proportion of those with dual diagnosis actually receive treatment for both disorders. In 2011, it was estimated that only 12.4% of American adults with dual diagnosis were receiving both mental health and addictions treatment. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dual_diagnosis#Treatment) This is in part because those with dual diagnoses may not be able to receive mental health services if they admit to a substance abuse problem, and vice versa. (Id.)

The following is an excerpt from Wikipedia, discussing treatment of dual diagnosis patients:

“There are multiple approaches to treating concurrent disorders. Partial treatment involves treating only the disorder that is considered primary. Sequential treatment involves treating the primary disorder first, and then treating the secondary disorder after the primary disorder has been stabilized. Parallel treatment involves the client receiving mental health services from one provider, and addictions services from another.

Integrated treatment involves a seamless blending of interventions into a single coherent treatment package developed with a consistent philosophy and approach among care providers. With this approach, both disorders are considered primary. Integrated treatment can improve accessibility, service individualization, engagement in treatment, treatment compliance, mental health symptoms, and overall outcomes. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the United States describes integrated treatment as being in the best interests or clients, programs, funders, and systems. Green suggested that treatment should be integrated, and a collaborative process between the treatment team and the patient. Furthermore, recovery should to be viewed as a marathon rather than a sprint, and methods and outcome goals should be explicit.”

As you can see, there is no easy answer. The suggestions above take time, money, health insurance, and advocacy, none of which (most) parents in the foster care system have. These treatment options also require a streamlined and interconnected system, which is certainly lacking in the bureaucracy of social services. Given the short timeframe parents have in which to reunify with their children, the fact that treatment for a dual diagnosis should be a “marathon rather than a sprint,” is especially troubling.

I am not a doctor, psychiatrist, counselor, or social worker. I am an attorney, writer, mom, and wife. Unfortunately, the latter set of credentials does not qualify me to come up with a perfect solution, or even an imperfect one. I understand a doctor’s belief that mental illness cannot be treated while drugs are either masking symptoms or creating symptoms that wouldn’t otherwise exist. But perhaps greater reunification periods could be given to parents with dual diagnosis. Perhaps doctors could cross their fingers and hold their breath and hope that the medication prescribed works well enough for the parent to get sober, then doctor, parent, and therapist can see what symptoms are left, and what new ones appear.

Whatever the alternative, it can’t be worse than what these parents face now.