“Troubled Nursing Home is Losing Federal Money” reads the headline in the Chicago Tribune, February 5th, 2010. This decision was given to the facility administration itself that same day, at 4 p.m., bringing to conclusion a long campaign by the Tribune and Alderman Mary Smith against the facility. They were successful. The facility was de-certified. The place is now swarmed with workers from the state to find new homes for some three hundred plus residents.
If you read the Tribune, you will definitely believe this is a victory for the social welfare of the chronically mentally ill in Illinois. Like some bureaucratic spaghetti western, the owners and administration of Somerset are villains and the Tribune and state and federal regulatory agencies heroes. But you can’t always believe what you read. The lurid, sensational reports in the Tribune not only distort the truth creating a politically useful fiction for Ald. Smith but, more profoundly, gloss over the real story: the remarkably poor treatment of the mentally ill in the state of Illinois. As a result, readers can cheer that greedy, calloused owners—the bad guys—have finally been shot and will no longer be able to exploit the mentally ill and recklessly endanger the community. Unfortunately, it is a lie. They have accomplished nothing, except to finally rid the uptown neighborhood of the property-devaluing presence of a large facility housing the mentally ill. The service provision and funding systems that provide services to the mentally ill have not changed. They are merely shuffling people around, putting on a show. Though notably, Ald. Smith has rid her ward of a chronic nuisance in the process.
So what has been accomplished? Well, over three hundred residents will abruptly be uprooted and moved. Any move, even planned and voluntary, can be stressful in anyone’s life, without the challenge of mental illness. In this instance, these residents have no choice. And worse, they will have little say in where they go. Their choices are extremely limited. Some of them have lived in Somerset for 15-20 years. This is their home and they are being summarily removed, purportedly for “their own best interests”. In some cases, they may land in places that improve their lives. In other cases, the move may cause disruption, hardship and initiate a downward spiral. The only way to know is to follow each and every one over the next year and see whether, in fact, the closure of Somerset really was in the residents’ best interests. It is an empirical question. If Somerset were an aberration in an otherwise wonderful network of mental health care in Illinois, I might be optimistic. However, it is not. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I fear. Thoreau might well have said “If I knew the State of Illinois were coming up the road to do me good, I should run for my life.” Will the Tribune or the State follow up to determine the outcome of this action on the many lives affected? Or will they stop, self-servingly, with the cartoon ending, ‘we got the bad guy.’
The problem with caricatures—and the Tribune series is a caricature of investigative reporting— is that simplicity arises at the cost of truth. And when truth goes, we are left with a fictive world of one-dimensional villains and lurid images. And these can be easily manipulated to further different agendas, the plight of the mentally ill in Illinois only marginally among them.
The story of Somerset is not a simple bad-guy, good-guy story where the good-guy won. Who are the villains and who the heroes is not entirely clear. Somerset was far from perfect, but equally far from the squalid hellhole the Tribune portrays. The owners and employees were not all saints, but they weren’t devils either. The story of the demise of Somerset is one that can only be understood from multiple perspectives, allowing a complexity excluded by Tribune’s cartoon portrayal of the world. That more complex story deserves, needs to be told.
This blog is devoted to telling the story of Somerset from multiple perspectives. Ideally, I would like to compile reflections and comments from everyone possible, including staff, residents, administration, owners, neighbors, state and federal surveyors and, even, the Tribune. Though the Tribune has clearly already told its story, it has yet to be held accountable for the quality and integrity of its reporting. The first series posted will be a careful and critical review of the Tribune’s entire investigative series. Not intended to represent a single viewpoint, contributions are invited (see ‘Submissions’ for details).