Lead paint judgments: the shame of the city

For the past two decades, many in Maryland have worked tirelessly to eliminate lead poisoning and to protect our most vulnerable children and families. It has required a lot of heavy lifting — organizing and educating parents, children and homeowners, strengthening enforcement standards and compelling property owners to become partners in primary prevention. Through all of this, Maryland has been blessed with great public sector leadership that understood that by eliminating the tragic and costly impact of lead on our children, schools, juvenile justice system and communities, we would all reap great benefits. This collective effort has resulted in a 98.6 percent reduction in lead poisoning in our state.

But we now face a deeply troubling decision by some of the very leaders who have championed this cause along the way. To say we are disappointed would be an understatement.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City's attempt to disregard court orders to pay monetary damages to children poisoned by lead is wrong. The judgments are intended to address the lifelong and irreversible damage caused to children by allowing lead hazards to go unchecked in the public housing units in which they lived.

Spending millions to try to avoid meeting their obligations is irresponsible. It not only wastes public funds but sends a message to landlords that if the city can dodge responsibility, why can't they? If the city doesn't take steps to insure itself against liability, why should they?

Far more important, however, is the message this sends to our children about how we value their lives — their ability to grow up healthy and to thrive. And what are we teaching them about the rules of fairness, accountability and respect for the rule of law?

The Housing Authority defends its actions by claiming that paying the settlements will prevent it from serving the greater needs of the broader Baltimore community. This is disingenuous and patently untrue. The Housing Authority has opted to hand over millions to defense attorneys — a third of the amount owed Baltimore residents who won or settled suits — to try to avoid paying settlements.

Instead of pouring millions into avoiding responsibility, the leadership of the agency should be hard at work to find a way to meet their obligations as directed by the courts. Many of us stand ready to work with the city to help resolve the legitimate claims and to allow it to move forward with a commitment to do right by its children.

It seems that the city and the Housing Authority have employed what noted author, physician and Harvard Medical School professor Paul Farmer called "the cynical calculus by which some lives are considered valuable and others expendable." It appears they have decided that the lives of children raised in public housing, whose lives and futures were permanently damaged by the poison in their homes, are expendable.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake needs to become personally involved. She has been a champion for lead poisoning prevention, leading the effort this year to adopt a bill in the state legislature to better assure the safety of our older rental housing. We hope she will step forward to assure that Baltimore will address and resolve this issue.

Every child is valuable and none are expendable. Paying these settlements is a moral issue. It speaks to who we are as a community and as a people. We need to send a message that we are a city that upholds its standards and values the right of every child to grow up in a healthy and safe home.

We have made major strides in Maryland and Baltimore to eliminate childhood lead poisoning. The work is tarnished when we turn our backs on kids who have suffered at the hands of the very institution that should have been their safest harbor.

Ruth Ann Norton is executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Her e-mail is ranorton@leadsafe.org.

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