Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Rehab zoning needs an intervention

In Cincinnati, there’s some conflict involving sober living homes that, on the surface, violate local zoning rules. The for-profit landlord is housing more unrelated individuals in single and double-family dwellings than the zoning code allows. The neighbors are not happy  The mayor has a plan to resolve the situation, one that the landlord says he will fight.

My suggestion is to bring together the zoning board, the landlord, and the neighbors, and hold an intervention.

The current zoning classification that limits the number of unrelated individuals in a residential dwelling to three is not workable today. It’s too low a number. It has become bad public policy, something I suspect is frequently ignored. For example, under current zoning rules, it’s okay for two married couples to share a house. But what if the couples were married out of state, and have the kind of marriage Ohio does not currently recognize? That’s a technical violation, yet something few today would try to enforce.

The community needs more sober living homes than the government funded system can ever support, so we do need private landlords in this market. But the neighbors have a point too. You can’t turn a ranch house into a tenement, and expect peace to erupt next door. I take the neighbors at their word that their intent is not discriminatory.  The neighbors would probably voice a similar complaint if the sober living house kicked out its current residents and started operating like a chain hotel.

Today’s zoning conflict is an example of what happens when legislation from half a century ago smacks into a more diverse population, a different set of health needs, a changing economy, and new ways of organizing work and society. We see the same kind of disconnect between taxi regulation and the phone apps that let anybody sell a ride. The same kind of disconnect affects hotel regulations and rent-a-room apps.

What needs to happen? Nothing too scary or too out of bounds. As this conflict plays out, we need to respect both the achievements of the people who are turning their lives around, and the reasonable expectations of their neighbors.


Here's a link to local news coverage of this situation.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Syringe cleanup fights injury and infection

My friends at People Advocating Recovery Northern KY are sponsoring their first volunteer-led neighborhood syringe cleanup.

Here's their message.

People Advocating Recovery in Northern Kentucky (NKY PAR) will be organizing the first of many syringe cleanup efforts beginning in Covington on Sunday 5/4/14, from 1-3pm. Our goal is to safely remove, map, and dispose of the infected needles that are littering our streets, playgrounds, and neighborhoods.

We will meet outside of the main entrance to the Kenton County Building at 303 Court Ave., and will branch out into the community from there. We are working with limited resources and greatly appreciate any support from our partnering organizations, community leaders, and neighbors.

Needed items of interest:

If you or your agency is able and willing to participate by donating time, safety training resources, supplies, or support of any kind, please feel free to contact me personally, or join us this Sunday.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Jason Merrick
859 380 5332


Photo from

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eliminating restraint and seclusion

It is possible to completely eliminate restraints and seclusion in developmental disability service systems. It takes good program design, safe and supportive environments, and proper training.  For the past three years I have worked with HOPE4CHANGE, a service provider for our county's highest risk caseload. We have practically eliminated violent incidents, and never use restraints or seclusion.

Here are some snapshots of the de-escalation training I deliver every seven weeks to the people on staff. We use role play and problem solving. Staff suggests situations from daily life with our participants. The group works on strategies to keep people safe.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Tough problems, common factors, social themes

What does it take to address intractable social problems? We might start by acknowledging a few common themes.

Consider our toughest, most enduring problems. Economic failures. Justice system failures. The school-to-prison pipeline. Education failures. School violence, and bullying. The suicide rate. Food deserts. Health disparities. Prescription drug deaths. Addictions.

We tend to discuss these issues separately. Each has a set of experts, with specialist vocabulary, measurements and techniques. It’s impossible for any one person to know exactly how to solve any of these issues (they are called difficult social problems for a reason), but there is good research today that connects these issues and reveals common themes.

One key theme is trauma. Exposure to trauma reduces cognitive capacity, especially executive function, the ability to find a way forward when the path is uncertain. Trauma also affects social connectedness. Another theme is resilience, the experiences that build capacities or buffer the effects of trauma, and help people make progress. The most basic factor is attachment in early childhood. Responding positively and promptly to an infant’s needs helps children learn to regulate their emotions. This has positive effects throughout the lifespan. Many factors of an ordinary, positive life help produce resilience. Good education, good role models, church attendance, safe neighborhoods, positive friendships, and good health are all on the list. Even what we do to overcome adversity adds to resilience. People learn and adapt. We succeed by solving problems.

We see these two themes playing out daily in our society. The net effect is that less of whatever is normal and positive in childhood leads to more of whatever is sick, unsuccessful, and unwanted as an adult. People who grow up in systems of failure can expect a lot of trouble in their lives. This is not about fault. It is about probabilities stacking up.

A third theme is social thinking. Everyone has habits of thinking that work socially, and are not exactly rational. For example, some individuals do escape from systems of failure, but we tend to overestimate their numbers, and minimize the effort that created the achievement.

People who succeed in the face of difficult circumstances are indeed exceptions. After all, there are only ten people on any Top Ten List, and millions of people read these lists. Every four years, at the Olympics, the world’s top athletes walk together around a stadium in about an hour, watched by billions of people in every corner of the world. Each athlete has done extraordinary things to get there. We develop a social attachment to our favorite competitors, and tend to ignore the pile of stacked up probabilities blocking the rest of us, and tune out the achievements the aspiring Olympians who did not make the cut.

We tend to enjoy shunning failures. The day after the Olympic parade, billions of people happily switch social gears, and engage in a process of separating the world’s greatest collection of athletes into winners and losers. As a species, we humans do tend to pile it on. It is human nature to blame victims, shun eccentrics, isolate the troubled, and punish failures.

The reason we find virtue in helping the poor, comforting the sick, and attending to prisoners is precisely because our common humanity makes this so difficult.

Photo of Corinna West from

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Yes we are the school-to-prison pipeline

By now, everyone has heard the story of the pipeline that affects minority populations and disfavored social groups.

The story starts with school failure, ends with mass criminalization, and is managed by a cast of villains. Indifferent managers and workers in systems deliver failure through policy or through incompetence, motivated by racism, ignorance, laziness or greed. In this story, the pipeline is a metal tube. We stand outside it, and see a solid piece of poison plumbing that scars our landscape like an exposed sewer. The moral of this story is “Look at what those people do to them.”

This story is frequently repeated, but it is not the right story.

The right story is about a pipeline that is not just school-to-prison, but as big as our society, and everybody lives inside it. The pipeline is flexible, and responds to what we do. It is organic, like our blood vessels. It travels everywhere throughout our corner of the world. The pipe has many intake points, many junctions, and many end points. It is a living, complex, dynamic system that responds to what people do. Everyone has a role in the story. As we act, we affect the velocity and direction of the flow of people’s lives. Every success, every failure is, to a certain extent, self-inflicted, as well as, to a certain extent, the failure of others in the pipeline with us. The moral of this story is “Look at what we are doing to ourselves.”

We have been telling the wrong story for two reasons. 

One is that it is hard to visualize the larger systems we live in. How long did it take for humanity to recognize that the earth is round, or is part of the solar system, or that life evolves?

The second reason is that it’s even harder to take responsibility for conditions we cannot completely control. Think of how difficult it is to accept responsibility for our own health. We know at a very deep level how difficult it is to act with responsibility, to take action to change our lives, or to protect others. We call this virtuous, sometimes even heroic, for a reason.

So, with respect to our social pipeline system, we have some issues to explore.
  • How do we create and reinforce the velocity and direction of the flows within the social pipeline?
  • What are some actions and choices we might make?
  • What rules should guide our choices?
  • How do we know we are choosing the positive path?
No one stands outside the social pipeline waiting to rescue us. It is time to figure this out.