Dec. 15, 2021

Good morning, MindSite News Readers. In today’s newsletter, you’ll read about gun violence survivors who are running for office, an exposé of a harmful “shadow” foster care system within the official system, and the transformation of a blighted empty lot in Philadelphia into a mini-park – the kind of greening that advocates hope can help reduce gun violence.

Can green spaces curb gun violence? 

Volunteers plant a small ornamental garden at the corner of a newly cleaned vacant lot in Philadelphia in 2013. Photo: Jana Shea, Shutterstock

In 2017, a community in Philadelphia transformed an empty lot filled with trash into an urban garden called Sanctuary Farms that resident Patricia Bennett describes as a welcoming place where neighborhood children can play and residents can come and pick vegetables, according to an article on Kouvenda Media.  “That kind of inclusion is important,” she said.

The lot’s transformation into a green oasis is part of a partnership between the city and Philadelphia LandCare, which has resulted in grass and trees in 7,500 of the city’s 44,000 vacant lots. In a study of the project published in 2018, researchers projected 350 fewer shootings per year, based on the 29 percent drop in gun violence they associated with Philadelphia LandCare’s efforts. Those study results led to similar greening efforts of blighted lots in many other cities around the country. But in Philadelphia and elsewhere, proving the association between green space and a drop in gun violence is often stymied by costs. Nonetheless, “we’re starting to see more funders who are willing to invest in this type of paired funding for both the intervention..and the paired evaluation that would go with it,” says researcher Michelle Kondo. “That was unheard of even five, ten years ago.”

Loan forgiveness, scholarships among proposed remedies to Colorado’s mental health workforce shortage

Colorado’s mental health safety net clinics need clinicians. The state’s 17 regional mental health centers have vacancies for 859 clinicians, about 16% of their total clinical staff. Meanwhile, some 40% of Coloradans live in an area with a shortage of mental health clinicians, the Colorado Sun reports. The shortfall translates into clinicians with high caseloads and patients waiting weeks or months for an appointment, if they can get one at all. The exodus from safety net clinics is driven by low pay, high stress and steep costs for renting or buying houses, according to the Sun.  

With the help of the federal coronavirus relief act – which some policymakers have called a “once in a generation” windfall – the state set up a $450 million fund to improve the state’s mental health system and assigned a taskforce to identify solutions to the workforce shortage. The taskforce is expected to recommend these fixes: a student loan repayment program tied to each year on the job; paying off college debt even if a clinician changes jobs (as long as they stay in mental health in the same community); scholarship funds to defray costs of advanced degrees in mental health; and making advanced degrees accessible through online courses. But advocates like Vincent Atchity of Mental Health Colorado are wary of putting federal money into a system he sees as broken. He argues that any real solution must involve integrating mental health staff into primary care settings. “It’s a darn shame to pour money” into standalone mental health clinics, Atchity told the Sun.

Gun violence survivors run for office to push for prevention, heal wounds

 People march in support of Moms Demand Action in Minneapolis’ yearly May Day parade in 2018. Photo: Nic Neufeld, Shutterstock.

For years Mia Livas Porter felt shattered and powerless by her brother’s suicide. Her brother, who was mentally ill, used a gun to kill himself. Then she joined an advocacy group known as Moms Demand Action, an offshoot of the gun violence prevention group called Everytown. “I felt empowered to use my voice as a survivor. And I saw how it could make legislative change,” Livas Porter told National Public Radio. Livas Porter is now running for a seat in the California Assembly. She’s among 100 gun violence survivors who have been trained through an initiative known as Demand A Seat, a program run by Everytown. Training includes learning the nuts and bolts of running a campaign, including how to fundraise and write and deliver speeches plus receiving mentorship from elected officials. 

The candidates are bringing a fresh perspective in other ways. One congressional candidate in Chicago, for example, says that true prevention must include recognizing that shooters and victims often live next door to one another, in neighborhoods cratered by poverty and a lack of access to health care – and that those structural problems need to be remedied to get traction on gun violence prevention. “Gun violence survivors who channel their grief into action, whether it’s activism or running for office (are) some of the most powerful activists for gun safety,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action. “They really force others to confront the human toll of gun violence.”

“Shadow” foster system sanctioned by the state lacks accountability and protections

When children enter the foster care system, the courts and local welfare agencies are expected to provide support, oversight and accountability. But in what scholars call the “shadow foster system,” an informal arrangement sanctioned by states and local authorities, there is little or no support, oversight or accountability, according to an exposé by ProPublica and the New York Times.  

On paper, the overriding goal of the foster care system is to provide whatever supports are needed to keep families intact – and if that fails, to put children in foster care, where foster parents receive government funding to raise the children, the kids are assigned a caseworker, and a common goal is family reunification. In the shadow foster care system, the news organizations report, case managers pressure parents to find a relative or friend to look after the children – but without any funding or accountability. Of the 500,000 children in foster care, half are in the shadow foster system, known officially as “kinship placements” – which often lack any plan to reunify families. “It’s a due-process violation all across the country,” says Josh Gupta-Kagan, a University of South Carolina Law School professor and the author of America’s Hidden Foster Care System. “Family integrity is a fundamental constitutional right, and this practice turned it on its head.” 

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And if you’re a veteran, press 1.

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Laurie Udesky reports on mental health, social welfare, health equity and public policy issues from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.