The poisoning of an American city: Where is the outrage about the incomprehensible crime against the children and families of Flint?

I have worked for the welfare of children for 45 years, starting as a big brother in New Brunswick, New Jersey when I was an undergraduate at Rutgers College and, after graduating, as a VISTA volunteer in Grand Island, Nebraska.  Then I went on to get my masters in social work at Adelphi, and I’ve worked in the children’s mental health field on Long Island ever since.

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I’ve marched, testified before government bodies for social causes including war, police brutality, school shootings, mental health, addictions and funding for human services. I participated in relief efforts after a number of large-scale disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.

In each case, no matter how urgent the need, how disorienting the circumstances or how depressing the situation I’ve always tried to make some sense out of what happened, even in the most incomprehensible of situations such as the Newtown shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Early on in my work life, someone suggested that if you are passionate about something and wish to be an advocate you must ask yourself these two questions: Why am I awake? And how do I relate to those who are asleep? In an attempt to wake people up, I’ve written a number of opinion pieces for publications like Newsday to better synthesize my own thoughts and feelings and convey messages that might educate and awaken others. In most cases I found colleagues and neighbors who shared my outrage and stood with and by me on issues that concerned me.

But, as I reach my 65th year in a few months, I must say that although I never ranked the private and public horrors that have unfolded in my lifetime, I believe the poisoning of Flint, Michigan to be the most incomprehensible of all. And although there is outrage and protest, I find it subdued in contrast to other tragedies I have witnessed.

The poisoning of an American city and all of its children, mostly racial minorities, is an act born of government bureaucrats’ wish to cut costs and what filmmaker Michael Moore said would have been considered ethnic cleansing by our government leaders if it happened in any other country but our own.

There is news coverage and there is finally some action being taken, but it feels muted to me as compared to Sandy Hook, for example. The residents of an entire American city were poisoned for 19 months. There were warning signs, yet government officials told the citizenry that the water was fine. It wasn’t until researchers pointed to elevated levels of lead in children under five after the switch to a cheaper water supply that any changes were made. After 19 months of poisoning.

We are all too familiar in New York with government corruption. We’ve been treated to a parade of legislators and public officials charged with and convicted of bribery, fraud, conspiracy, racketeering, money laundering, tax evasion and such. But poisoning children? 

If it were my children who were poisoned I can only imagine what I might do. Yet none of the Flint parents are acting on the murderous rage that I think I would feel and expect they may also feel. I guess it is because acting on such impulses would do nothing to help their children. 

Yet, how do you go on knowing that your unborn child, infant, toddler or school-age child with a still-developing brain will be damaged for life with cognitive impairments? How do you go on knowing that their intellectual potential will be significantly limited because government bureaucrats were looking for a shortcut to balance the budget? What can you say to a parent that might offer them some solace?

I can't think of a thing. Can you?

Malekoff is executive director of the nonprofit children’s mental health agency North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center in Roslyn Heights, NY.