Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Good Women of the Times, part 1

Every morning I read the New York Times online. I know, this is asking for morning apoplexy, but the practice has become a habit since 9/11 and I can't seem to stop. Actually I mostly skim the headlines and the two sentence descriptions of articles and figure I can skip them. But there are a few bylines that ensure I'll stop for a look.
bernstein_ninaNina Bernstein
Nina Bernstein is a journalist I've read avidly since the 90s when I was working to preserve some shreds of "welfare" from Bill Clinton's "Welfare Reform." In her 2001 book The Lost Children of Wilder Bernstein told hard truths about a foster care system that destroys many families and children as well as saving some. Publisher's Weekly described the tale:

In this first-rate investigation, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein explores the genesis and aftermath of the landmark 1973 legal case filed by young ACLU attorney Marcia Lowry against the New York State foster-care system. Known as Wilder for its 14-year-old African-American plaintiff, Shirley "Pinky" Wilder, the suit claimed Jewish and Catholic child welfare services had a lock on foster care funding and placements. … Bernstein illuminates broader social issues through the story of Shirley; Lamont, the son she bore at 14; and Lamont's young son--all graduates of New York's hellish child welfare system. …

It took 25 years and many more lawsuits before the reforms mandated by Wilder began to be realized. In the interim, Lamont endured the same excruciating experiences his mother had suffered, including physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, witnessing the deaths of other children in foster care and losing his own child to the foster care system. A crack addict, Shirley died of AIDS at 40. Despite these horrors, the book ends with the hopeful postscript that Lamont's son currently lives with his mother, Kisha, and visits his now self-supporting father on weekends. @ 2000 Cahners Business Information.


Bernstein stuck with the foster care story for years, while moving from a job at Newsday to one at the New York Times. And she stuck with the evolving story of the welfare "deform" long after most people in the US thought that saga was over. In 2000 she broke the story of how New York City's notion of job readiness for former welfare recipients was to train them to be telephone psychics.

The city's welfare department has been recruiting welfare recipients to work from home as telephone psychics since April. …

Clairvoyance is not among the qualifications listed on the city's recruitment flier. Any public assistance recipient with a high school equivalency degree, "a caring and compassionate personality" and the ability "to read, write and speak English" can qualify for Psychic Network's "minimum starting salary of $10 per hour, plus bonuses," the flier says. Those interested are asked to call Business Link, a division of the city's Human Resources Administration that finds and trains workers from the welfare rolls, and to sign up for a group screening session.

"What if I'm not a psychic?" a caller to Business Link asked.

"They'll train you," the city employee who answered the telephone replied. Ms. Reinecke said that applicants were trained to read tarot cards by a representative from Psychic Network at the city's Business Link office on West 34th Street.


More recently Bernstein has been digging through the accounts of people swept up and detained in the post 9/11 panic about immigrant "terrorists." In 2004, she tracked down Nepalese former detainee Purna Raj Bajracharya who fell under suspicion for making a "tourist video" of Queens office buildings and a pizzeria where he'd worked. Though quickly cleared by the FBI, he "spent almost three months in a 6-by-9-foot cell kept lighted 24 hours a day."

He said he was stripped naked in the federal jail. "I was manhandled and treated badly," he said, becoming agitated. "I was very, very embarrassed even to look around, because I was naked.…

On Dec. 6, in a secret hearing room in the prison, [Ms. Cassin, his legal aid attorney,] said, she watched him carried in by three burly officers of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, shackled so completely that he could not move. "He's tiny," she said. "His feet didn't even touch the floor.…"

Ms. Cassin said she pleaded with the prison doctor to put him in the general prison population, but the doctor said he was crying so much he would cause a riot.


After three months, Bajracharya was shipped, shackled, to Nepal, cleared of any wrongdoing except overstaying his visa.

In 2005, Bernstein has been writing about the fate of asylum seekers, refugees the US promises under international law to admit to the country, if they claim a "well founded fear of persecution." The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an agency created by Congress in 1998, reported that such people are treated like criminals.

In 2003, 5,585 men and 1,015 women seeking asylum were jailed. …Severe psychological damage is among the effects of throwing people seeking refuge together with criminals in "stark conditions," the report said, describing 24-hour lights, chained walks to go eat, no privacy even to use the toilet and little chance to exercise outdoors. Detainees are allowed to work but paid $1 a day.

Five of the 19 detention centers examined had mental health staff, and none had guards trained to work with victims of torture or repression. In most places the treatment for those considered suicidal was solitary confinement. A footnote pointed out that isolation was "likely to exacerbate depression," not prevent suicide.

"The whole detention system is there to break you down further," one former detainee told interviewers in the report. "You are not even allowed to cry. If you do, they take you to isolation."


Since Bernstein wrote this story, the House has passed a whole new set of hoops designed to further discourage people fleeing persecution from coming to the US. Then House leaders attached the law to the "must pass" spending bill for Iraq and tsunami aid.

Next time you see Nina Bernstein's byline, remember to take a look. The story is sure to be important, human and well told.

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