'Cone of silence' blocks the burden of consequences

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 28, 2011 - 8:47 PM

The so-called "cone of silence" that has descended on the State Capitol is designed to keep legislators and the governor from opening their mouths in public, so strong is their collective urge to say something dumb and thus ruin the already tenuous negotiations to save the state from a sign on the door that says: "Closed."

Apparently it also shields them from the clamor outside the cone. Otherwise they would be paying attention to someone like Betsy Auth, just one Minnesotan whose world is being turned upside down because our politicians have failed us.

Late last week, Auth received a note that has caused her family, and presumably the families of thousands of others, emotional turmoil. Here is the beginning of a letter she sent to Gov. Mark Dayton:

"I am writing to you today as I received a letter from my son's group home letting me know that his care has been deemed "non-essential." My son is 14 years old, has severe autism as well as other behaviors that make caring for him in our home impossible. His privately-owned group home, which has provided excellent care for him, would be forced to close its doors if they stopped receiving monies from the state. They could survive for a time, but it would very quickly impact their ability to meet the health and safety requirements of the children that live in their home."

Auth says that when she opened the letter from the group home, Total Living Commitment, "I was just floored." Auth had repeatedly been assured by the facility and her case workers that the government would never allow something as dire as a shutdown, proving once again that it is impossible to underestimate politicians.

It was a wrenching decision to place Mitchell in a group home when he was 6 years old. His unpredictable outbursts had become too much for the family to handle, and the Auths realized that Mitchell, already a big kid, was becoming a danger to himself and family members. That behavior caused Mitchell to be hospitalized three times, and when he pushed his sister down, "we knew we couldn't keep everybody safe and secure," Betsy Auth said. "He was faster and stronger than we were."

When the Auths visit, "he does recognize us and smiles and he does have moments of endearment, but if things don't go his way he can't communicate that with us and he acts out," said Auth.

If the state shuts down, the group home will stop getting paid this week, she said. "They said they could operate for a couple of weeks without payment, then they would have to start laying people off and using a skeleton crew." If money was still withheld, Mitchell might have to come home.

"He needs 24-hour, one-on-one care," said Auth. "One of us would have to take time off or quit work, and we probably have a rosier picture than a lot of people in our situation."

Mitchell has been at Total Living Commitment for three years and "doing really well. They've been doing an excellent job with him, and he likes living in a more controlled environment," Auth said. "He comes to our home for two or three hours, then he wants to go back to his home."

I asked Auth what she would like to tell the politicians inside the cone of silence in St. Paul.

"I think what they have to do is listen to their constituents and stop playing games," she said. "The decisions they make are going to play out in people's lives for a very long time. If they cut services for people like Mitchell, it will hurt him, hurt our family and hurt society. And it crosses party lines."

Auth took a deep breath.

"Maybe they should all work a shift at a group home or a nursing home and see why these services are essential," she said.

"The first thing I said when Mitchell got help was, 'I am so happy to live in a country and state where kids like Mitchell are taken care of,'" said Auth. "Is this the U.S.A.? Is this Minnesota?"

Auth asks good questions. When the suits emerge from the cone of silence in St. Paul, we will find out if we are a state that takes care of the weakest among us, or whether we see them as simply "non-essential."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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