Today was the third Sunday I have sat in the pews of the West Hartford UU Church since the mass murder in Sandy Hook. Each time, I found that the music and the sermon feel as though they were talking directly to me. Sanctuary is the perfect word for these hours.
Today, there was an absolutely gorgeous piano & strings piece. It reminded me of the Strings piece played at the funeral of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene. Then later in the service a band of musicians and singers played Iris DeMint's tune: "There's a Whole lot of Heaven...shining on this river of tears." I felt tears rolling down my cheeks as I thought of "CT's river of tears" and the aftermath of Sandy Hook. So many people reaching out and wanting to help the community and so many working already for change.
In many ways, this Sunday is like most days since the 27 murders and the suicide of Adam Lanza. Everyday things bring my mind and energy to Newtown. The past few weeks, I have felt like any other mother: sad, angry, empathetic....but I also happen to be in the State Senate, and am in a position to make change legislatively. We all have an opportunity to make change...but the ones I propose end up, very quickly,in the newspaper and on the evening news.
The challenge, is to make sure changes really make a meaningful difference. The parents who lost children in Newtown expect no less from us. We need to address gun safety, mental health care, and school safety in comprehensive ways.
I have been an elected person in West Hartford for 11 years now – 5 on the Board of Education, and 3 terms in Hartford. In general, I get more calls and emails than most other legislators as we have a very engaged public. I talk to folks when I am out and about in Town as well. No issue even comes close to the feedback I have gotten on this issue.
From the moment this happened...people stop me on the street, at the bagel store, shopping, after the Newtown vigil....and say: "We have got to do something about gun safety" or "Our mental health system is broken"...I get emails, hundreds of Facebook comments..."do something" or "thank you for doing something."
My focus legislatively has been on mental health and gun control. Gun control tends to get the media's attention, and the answers on mental health legislation take more time as they are more complex. What I am proposing on gun safety are some basic, common sense regulations, like:
1. You need to register your gun every other year, like you register your car.
2. Make it illegal to sell or possess a magazine that shoots over 10 bullets.
3. Any gun that has a pistol grip (to hold in your hand vs. on shoulder) is classified as a handgun.
4. You need to pass a background check to buy ammunition. Same rules that apply to buying guns apply to buying ammo.
5. Ban on-line purchase of ammunition (to be able to enforce #4).
6. A 50% tax on ammunition, unless it is purchased and used at a gun range (to recognize the public health hazard of ammo). Bullets currently cost between 15 cents and $30 per shot. This is equal to the current CT cigarette tax
7. If you have children under 18, guns need to be stored safely.
On the mental health side. I have had 7 meetings to date to determine the best legislative action. I have met with parents who have experienced the broken and ineffective current system. I have met with the Health Care Advocate and the Child Advocate. I have met with the Commissioner of Mental Health and Addiction services (a West Hartford resident). I expect to have a legislative proposal by the end of the week to try and fix some of the most glaring problems.
All I know is that right now is that...
1. Kids with serious mental health issues and their families are caught up in a cost shifting battle between school districts, DCF, and health insurance companies -- about who will pay for what.
1a. DCF and schools do not readily accept that children qualify for their special services.
2. Psychiatrists, who are in short supply, are often charging $450 per half hour of service for adolescents and, often, don't take private insurance or HUSKY.
3. Private insurance often won't pay for needed services.
4. Some of our successful community based programs for adolescents are only available if you are low income or if your child has been accepted into a DCF program.
5. Even if families want to pay cash for community based, or institutional mental health services, they can't. Many programs will not accept private pay...only pay from DCF.
6. The fight for services seems to get less difficult when DMHAS takes over when the children turn 18. But DMHAS requires that the families use a whole new care team...when they may have had a psychiatrist or psychologist that their children trust.
7. in 2012...families are mortgaging their homes, or impoverishing themselves to qualify for HUSKY, to get what they need for their children.
And the brave and determined families I talked with to think about systems change are in a position to mortgage their homes and earn enough to pay for care that is very expensive...they say to me.."What about kids in families with less education and means? What is happening to them?"
These issues are very complex..but demand action, and the answers are not cheap. They will mean that we, as a society, need to make big changes, that may cost a great deal, to support families and children facing these challenges.
Next weekend at Church will be Martin Luther King Day and our Community will celebrate its MLK Day with its annual ceremony. I am sure it will be inspirational. And I'll keep looking to my faith community and our community of West Hartford for inspiration and guidance on this path toward meaningful change.