A Bill Can Be Very Good, Yet Incommensurate to the Tragedy That Inspired It

Monday, March 19, 2012

In August of 2002, I accompanied my 21-year-old daughter, Catherine, to New Mexico, where she was to begin a new job as a teacher in an elementary school for Navajo children. A newly minted graduate of Emmanuel College, an overlooked star in Boston’s educational firmament, she had made a two-year commitment to teach at the St. Bonaventure Mission in Thoreau (pronounced thuh-RUE), a small, high desert settlement seven miles east of the Continental Divide.

We flew to Albuquerque on a Sunday, rented a car at the airport, got a suite at Motel 6, and started looking for a good used car for her to buy. After three days of car shopping, we settled on a 10-year-old Honda Accord with low mileage, bought and registered it, arranged financing and insurance, and returned the rental. On Thursday morning, we headed to Thoreau, which is located approximately 140 miles west of Albuquerque, just off Route 40, (formerly Route 66).

For someone like me, a lifelong resident of Massachusetts with a love of cities, it didn’t look like there was a lot to Thoreau or a lot that went on there. My urban bias, I am sure, blinded me to the virtues and charms of the place. As for St. Bonaventure’s itself, it is quite interesting -- if your curiosity extends to old trailer parks.

The mission sits in a vast, flat, sun-scorched landscape stretching for miles in all directions. The teachers all live in mobile homes arrayed on an elongated loop spread over several acres. The air rings constantly with the faint whistle of a wind from the west that drives a powdery, reddish dust through the tiny cracks of window frames and doorways. On the day we drove in, tumbleweeds were blowing across the road.

The closer we got to the trailer housing the mission office, the more I wondered, How am I going to leave my daughter in such a desolate place, more than two thousand miles from her home?

Having learned in Albuquerque that the state of New Mexico operates prisons in the rural towns near Thoreau, the first thing I did when we got to her trailer was check for locks on the windows and doors. I had this terrifying picture in my mind of an escaped convict lurking in a nearby gully, watching Catherine’s trailer as darkness descended on the desert, and waiting for the moment when he could break in, beat her (or worse!) and steal away with her car.

All parents, alas, must learn to let their children go, even if one day they are heading into potentially unsafe or risky situations. It is worse to deprive them of the opportunity to go where their hearts lead them than to expose them to something that might harm them, somehow, someday. You do not want to wound their spirits, diminish their confidence, or deprive them of chances to fulfill their dreams.

Parents everywhere, in every age, have learned to accept this truth.

Catherine, I am happy to report, spent a total of three years at St. Bonaventure’s and the closest she ever came to real danger (that I am aware of) was the day the Girl Scout troop she was leading on a camping trip saw a rattlesnake up ahead on a trail they were walking. “The Navajo girls see snakes all the time, so they weren’t fazed at all,” she said, “but I couldn’t run fast enough in the opposite direction.”

Not all parents, though, are as fortunate as my wife and I, and I do not like to dwell on the unfortunate ones. Their sorrow is too great, their pain unending.

Whenever I see something on the State House News Service about Senate Bill 2006, however, I can’t help but think of the parents of Stephanie Moulton, a young woman who took a job as a counselor at a group home for mental patients in Revere not long after graduating from college. On January 20, 2011, a day she was working there alone, Stephanie was brutally murdered by one of her clients.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry of Peabody filed SB 2006, An Act Requiring Employees at Residential Facilities Licensed by the Department of Mental Health to Be Equipped with Panic Buttons, in the aftermath of her murder, and with the full support of Stephanie’s parents, Kim Flynn and Robert Moulton. The idea behind the legislation is to provide a level of protection to mental health workers that Stephanie tragically lacked.

I do not know Stephanie’s parents, but I’m certain that they worried about her safety when she took that job at the group home. I say that, of course, at the risk of offending those who suffer from mental illness and those who care for, and advocate for, those with mental illnesses. I apologize in advance to anyone so offended. I’m sure that the great majority of mental patients never pose a physical threat to anyone else.

And in writing this, I’m not criticizing any individual, group, program, or system.

I’m merely trying, in a way almost certainly doomed to fail because of my limitations, to commiserate with the parents of a young woman who died a violent, senseless death, a unique human being whose life of great hope and promise was ended suddenly one morning because her commitment to serve others put her in the wrong place at the worst possible moment.

SB 2006 is a good bill. I hope the legislature enacts it soon. I also hope that no parent in Massachusetts is ever again compelled, as Kim Flynn and Robert Moulton have been, to seek a scrap of consolation in imperfect solutions like panic buttons

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