I have protested or testified before government bodies for issues including separating children at the border, school shootings and insurance parity for mental health and substance use disorders. I participated in a number of relief efforts after large-scale disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. Yet nothing haunts me as much as the poisoning of an American city.
The water crisis in Flint, MI, began in April 2014 when, in a cost-cutting measure, the drinking water supply from Detroit’s system was switched to the Flint River. When essential treatment and testing of the water did not follow, health issues ensued.
Government officials turned their backs on the residents of Flint by ignoring the problem that was signaled by foul smelling and discolored water being piped into people’s homes for nearly two years.
Five years later, in January 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer assured Flint residents that they will continue getting free bottled water until all of the pipes are replaced. According to a Jan. 23, 2019 report in The Detroit News, “As of December, the city had replaced nearly 7,000 out of 18,300 lead or galvanized steel water pipes it had identified.”
Beyond the local community, where is the sustained outrage about this unfathomable crime against the children and families of Flint?
I’ve seen a lot in seven decades beginning in the early 1950s, and although I never attempted to rank the horrors over those years, I find the poisoning of Flint, MI, to be among the most troubling. Although there has been backlash, I find it to be muted in comparison to other disasters.
The poisoning of an American city and all of its children, mostly children of color, was a government cost-cutting measure that would have been considered ethnic cleansing by our government leaders if it happened in any other country but our own, according to filmmaker Michael Moore.
To be clear: The residents of an entire American city were poisoned for 19 months. There were warning signs—off-tasting water, body rashes, itchy skin, hair loss—yet government officials told the residents that the water was just fine. It took almost two years of poisoning for the government to wake up after researchers pointed to elevated levels of lead in children.
Corruption in New York State and the country at large is so common that clean government has become an oxymoron. Have we become so inured to it that our attention cannot focus on the latest scandal for very long? Has our capacity for empathy become drained by serial horrors?
If my children were among the poisoned I would likely have to contain feelings of murderous rage, because acting on such impulses would do nothing to help my children.
Yet how do the parents of Flint cope with the knowledge that their children, with still-developing brains, may sustain cognitive impairments that will last a lifetime?
Gov. Whitmer reflected, “Trust was not broken overnight, and it’s not something you can earn overnight.”
The Detroit News reported that “many residents remain wary of the water amid fears that pipe replacement efforts could dislodge lead flakes.” They likely remember that state regulators did not make sure that the city used corrosion control chemicals when it made the switch to the Flint River for its water supply in April 2014.
Will trust ever be restored by parents who understand that their children’s intellectual potential has been compromised by bureaucrats looking for a shortcut to balance the budget? What can one do or say to offer some relief? I cannot think of a thing. Can you?
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.