Childhood’s end

With seven candidates on the ballot, it’s been a wild campaign season here in New York’s 19th Congressional District. There have been plenty of memorable moments. But nothing has filled me with more surprise and delight than Gareth Rhodes making a big old campaign issue out of rural maternity access.

“Delaware County is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and it has no maternity wing,” Rhodes told Rolling Stone recently.

That wasn’t always the case. Once, there were maternity wards in Margaretville, Delhi, Sidney, Walton, Hancock, Stamford. Most were shuttered decades ago. More than one local hospital got out of the baby-delivering business in the 70s under pressure from the state Department of Health — which, in a paroxysm of cost-cutting and regional planning fever, threatened to cut Medicaid reimbursement to any hospital whose maternity ward dipped below 60 percent capacity.

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It’s not just an upstate New York problem, though. More than half of all rural counties in the U.S. now have no maternity care, and more continue to close every year.

Recently, I caught up with Rhodes, who took a few minutes out of home-stretch campaigning to talk about maternity care in the district. Lucky for me, he happened to be driving through a piece of NY19 that actually has cell phone service. The loss of local maternity care is just part of the rural population spiral, he told me: Loss of population leads to loss of services, which leads to further loss of population, and so on.

When you talk about healthcare, you hear people’s stories, and Rhodes has been getting an earful.

“I did an event in Middleburgh, a mother and her husband came. They had just given birth in the emergency room up there,” he said. “I’ve spoken to mothers who will miss prenatal exams because there’s only one car in the household, and their husband or spouse is at work.”

Rural people are used to making do. Forty-two years ago this May, my 21-year-old mother, upon discovering that her water had broken, drove herself 45 miles from Margaretville to Kingston. My father, who didn’t have a driver’s license, rode in the passenger seat. It’s a family legend.

Not much has changed around here since then, except we now have even fewer places in the region for delivering babies. As recently as 2016, the Bassett network closed the maternity unit at the A.O. Fox Hospital in Oneonta. If my wife and I have another kid, I keep telling people, we’re probably just going to squat somewhere in Rhinebeck for that last month. Stories like my mom’s are funnier after they’ve had happy endings.

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This column space was going to be dedicated entirely to the incredible disappearing maternity wards of the rural Catskills, and how the lack of access is affecting local residents, but that’s going to have to wait for a later followup report, because I have something in my eye, damn it.

I care about rural healthcare. You care about rural healthcare. But let’s not kid ourselves: Everybody with a functioning care gland is pretty distracted right now by what’s going on at our southern border. It’s hard to focus on sober policy discussion with the voices of children screaming for their parents ringing in your ears.

Many reporters have been doing good, dogged work on the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy and the families being separated by it. I’d like to take a few of my allotted weekly words to point you toward some of it, especially the stories documenting children being detained in our own backyard.

On Tuesday, June 19, the Associated Press published a devastating account of the journey of Blanca Orantes-Lopez, a 26-year-old asylum-seeker from El Salvador, and her 8-year-old son Abel Alexander. Facing a demand of $5000 from extortionists who threatened Abel’s life, the family set out on a month-long journey to the U.S. border.

Orantes-Lopez is currently in a federal prison in Seattle, awaiting word on her asylum case. Her son is here, in a Kingston children’s shelter, and she’s not being allowed to call him. The AP reports that the boy’s aunt in Maryland, Maria Orantes, is in contact with him and has petitioned for custody, but to no avail.

“When he calls, he’s crying. He doesn’t want to be there,” Maria Orantes told AP reporters Gene Johnson and Manuel Valdes.

Soon after the AP’s story came out, local statehouse reporter Joe Mahoney ferreted out the name of the local shelter: the Kingston Children’s Home. In a story for Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., the chain that owns the Plattsburgh Press-Republican and the Oneonta Daily Star, Mahoney writes that the Kingston shelter is one of several private shelters in the state holding detained migrant children. Others are in the Bronx, Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau counties.

According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is vowing to sue the federal government over the children’s detention, state officials are trying to get mental health services to some 70 children being detained in shelters across New York State, but they have been prevented from doing so because the federal government has “essentially gagged” the shelters.

Hundreds of private shelters across the country are now taking in more than 2000 “unaccompanied” migrant children affected by the recent policy — so classified because the parents who were accompanying them have been arrested, imprisoned or deported. Out front on investigating those shelters is a collaborative group of reporters from the Texas Tribune and Reveal, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. On Wednesday, June 20, the two news organizations co-published an exclusive report documenting histories of abuse and neglect at dozens of the shelters currently under contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The team dug up plenty of disturbing reports. In one New York shelter, the Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, an 11-year-old Guatemalan refugee was sexually assaulted by another boy at the shelter. Staffers told his mother only that there had been an “incident,” and that her son was “fine.” The only documentation she received was an $800 hospital bill from the New York hospital that treated him after the attack. At another shelter, the Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas, a 9-year-old Honduran refugee was kept on psychotropic drugs for months, despite his mother’s frantic objections.

The Kingston shelter where 8-year-old Abel is being held isn’t mentioned in the Texas Tribune’s story, but their record on this front isn’t exactly spotless. In 2010, Kingston Children’s Home staffer Cathy Jones pleaded guilty to felony rape of a 17-year-old at the facility.

There’s a lot we don’t know about what’s happening to the separated migrant families, but what we do know is growing more upsetting every day. I don’t judge Rachel Maddow one bit for crying on television about it.

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