New!! Photo essays!!

Brand new feature! Photo essays!

Yep, I’ve finally figured out yet another way to tell stories.  This week I’m featuring a short photo essay about Puzzle’s early puppyhood.  It’s not exactly fascinating but the photos will determine Puzzle’s status as Cuteness Queen in any viewer’s eyes.  Come have a look.

PS: Don’t bother with the slide show, because the captions don’t show properly.  Watch the filmstrip!

Blue Christmas

I heard about this on public radio this morning and thought I’d share this article.  You know, it is always hard for me missing Joe around the time of the holidays.  He had something like 30 nieces and nephews.   It was always a joy to listen to Joe talk about the “rug rats” opening their presents at Christmastime.

‘Blue Christmas’ church services attract the depressed, joyless

By Kristen Gelineau, Associated Press Writer | December 19, 2006

RICHMOND, Va. –There were no jolly Christmas carols to be found at the Cannon Memorial Chapel. No brilliant poinsettias or festive branches of holly. No smiling faces or hearty wishes of happiness.

Instead, somber piano music echoed through the hushed church. Dead branches were lain on a table covered in blue cloth, representing the “winter of our souls.” Men and women held each other and cried.

“This is not a traditional Christmas service,” Chaplain Kate O’Dwyer Randall began, opening the church’s nondenominational “Blue Christmas” service on Tuesday, which drew around 60 people.

The University of Richmond’s chapel is one of many churches across North America offering Blue Christmas services this year, aimed at addressing a season that brings many people depression and grief rather than comfort and joy.

“Holidays in our culture are often about families, and families are not always happy institutions,” said O’Dwyer Randall, who once worked as a grief counselor. “I think that particularly if you’re facing a death or a divorce, the ’empty chair syndrome’ becomes very real at this time of year.”

Sharon Van de Walle feels that emptiness. Her husband of 40 years died suddenly earlier this month.

“This just is a preparation for Christmas, which is going to be rather difficult,” she said tearfully.

Her friend, Anita McCabe, consoled her with a warm embrace.

“And it’s a good place to have a cry and no one will mind,” she told her friend.

Some churches refer to such programs as “Longest Night” services and hold them on the shortest day — and therefore, the longest night — of the year. This year, that falls on Thursday.

“I find in my ministry that there’s quite a bit of pastoral work to be done in December. It just seems that whatever griefs or pain people have increase in this time,” said Rev. Cynthia Maybeck, pastor of the Trinity Church of Northborough, Mass., which has been offering “Longest Night” services for more than a decade. “Everything on the commercials is ‘Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas, such a season of tidings and great joy’ — and there’s a lot of people whose hearts are breaking.”

While some may find the “Blue Christmas” concept unusual, it serves an important function, said O’Dwyer Randall, who lost her brother two years ago and feels the grief more acutely at Christmas.

“I think something people don’t think about around grief is they just want to avoid it,” she said. “The biggest sigh of relief for people who are grieving comes when you name it. When you say, ‘Hey, you’re probably having a hard year.’ When you say the person’s name.”

Her sermon Tuesday drew a parallel between the journey toward hope and the three wise men, who walked through cold and darkness toward the light of a star.

Later, she and others placed blue flowers on the dead branches, symbolically transforming them into something blooming and alive.

Frank Minter, 21, gazed up at the light streaming through the church’s circular stained glass window. His mind was on his mother, who died unexpectedly last month after a battle with multiple sclerosis.

“We’re not sure how the holidays will play out,” he said softly. “So this was a chance to enjoy the holiday season, because this is certain. And in uncertain times, even a little bit of certainness is helpful.”

The Rev. Emily Richards, pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ridgefield, Conn., said there has been a huge response for her church’s first Blue Christmas service, also scheduled for Tuesday.

“We have to have the perfect Christmas and we have to be happy this time of year — when the reality is that we’re not,” she said. “This is an opportunity for people to come and be in the presence of God and acknowledge their grief and despair and loneliness and give it to God.”

This is the first Christmas 77-year-old Charles Minter Jr., will have to celebrate without his wife Barbara, whom he was married to, he says with a sad smile, for “57 years, four months and three days.” They married just 19 days after they met. In May, she succumbed to cancer.

“I hate the holidays. I see the lights and Christmas — I just get the chills,” he said. “I hope this is gonna help.”

Later, he hangs a blue flower on a branch and gives O’Dwyer Randall a hug before returning to his seat, wiping away tears. His Blue Christmas experience has been beautiful, he says, but difficult. He can’t stop thinking about Barbara.

He speaks of her last days with an aching tenderness. Her eyes had long since lost their sparkle, turning cloudy from the drugs. But the day before she passed, he says, she suddenly opened them and gazed at him. For a moment, the cloudiness was gone. Her eyes were clear and bright.

And they were, he remembers, so very, very blue.

Depressing news in a festive time of year

I heard this on the radio about an hour ago.  Here are the details.

State Faulted in Use of Shock

A state report identifies multiple failures by staff members of a group home that allowed two emotionally disturbed teenagers to be given dozens of electrical shocks at the direction of a caller posing as a supervisor.

The report says none of the six staff members in a Stoughton residence run by the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center on the night of Aug. 26 acted to stop the harrowing events for three hours, despite ample reasons to doubt the validity of the caller’s instructions to wake the boys in the middle of the night and administer painful shock treatments, at times while their arms and legs were bound.

The caller said he was ordering the punishments because the teenagers had misbehaved earlier in the evening, but none of the home’s staff had witnessed the behavior that the caller cited. As the two boys’ screams could be heard throughout the house, near-mutiny erupted among the other boys, who insisted that the accused teenagers had violated no rules. One boy even suggested the call was a hoax, according to the report by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, which licenses group homes.

The staffers, inexperienced and overworked, were described as concerned and reluctant, yet nobody verified the orders with central office, nor did anybody check treatment plans for the two teenagers to be sure they were permitted to receive that degree of shock therapy.

The Rotenberg Center has long been controversial for punishing students with two-second shocks, delivered through electrodes attached to their skin, and it is now permitted only on residents with court-approved “aversive therapy” plans.

In addition, the report said staff at the Stoughton house did not know who the shift supervisor was that night; the senior staffer did nothing to intervene.

By the time a call was finally placed to the central office and staff members realized their mistake, one teenager had received 77 shocks, well in excess of what his treatment plan allowed, and the other received 29. One boy was taken to the hospital for treatment of two first-degree burns.

One reason the staff may not have been more suspicious of the call was that it was not unusual to receive orders over the phone to administer electric shocks or other discipline. To provide round-the-clock monitoring of its residents, as well as monitor the staff’s compliance with procedures, the Rotenberg Center, based in Canton, uses an extensive set of surveillance cameras in its group homes. A central office employee watches a bank of television screens, and is authorized to initiate discipline by phone.

The six staff members have been suspended, as was the video surveillance worker on duty that night, according to the report.

As a result of the investigation, Rotenberg officials have expanded training for staff, instituted new telephone verification procedures, added oversight at group homes, and eliminated delayed punishment, the use of shocks long after an alleged offense.

The report identifies the caller as a former resident of the center with intimate knowledge of the staff, residents, and physical layout of the Stoughton group home. The caller’s motivation and identity have not been disclosed. Police are looking into filing criminal charges.

The incident has put the Rotenberg Center, which draws its 250 students from across the country, on the defensive again about its unorthodox use of electric-shock treatments. The residents, both children and adults, are autistic, mentally retarded, or have serious emotional problems. Rotenberg officials, who have weathered two attempts by Massachusetts officials to close the center, have defended the school’s shock-treatment plans as effective for some students and vow that the events of last August will not be repeated because of the newly implemented safeguards.

“This has never happened before,” said Ernest Corrigan, a spokesman for the center. “It was a perfect storm of things that went wrong that night.”

The state report, based on extensive interviews with center staff and residents, gives a detailed account of what happened on that sweltering August night.

Six staff members worked the overnight shift at the group home at 66 Kevin Clancy Way, a tan house located in a quiet cul-de-sac in Stoughton. Five of the six had already worked a double or triple shift, while the sixth worker showed up at 10 p.m. None had much experience caring for emotionally disturbed boys at the group home. Most had been on the job less than three months.

Still, as bedtime approached, the staff felt the night had gone well. No significant behavioral problems had erupted within the house, which has a capacity for 12 males.

At about 2 a.m., the telephone rang. The staff member who had arrived at 10 answered the kitchen phone, the only one working in the house. The battery of a cordless phone, the only one with caller ID, had run out.

The caller told the staff member to wake up three residents and administer shocks for their behavior earlier in the evening. The staff member “began to comply with every direction given,” the report said, and other staff members also followed the directions.

Even though the staff did not witness any of the alleged offenses, they assumed that the caller had seen the infractions on the television surveillance screens in the Canton main office and that he had the authority to order the punishments.

The staff was “apprehensive” and confused about the caller and discussed what to do, but they went ahead with the punishments because they were told by the caller that they would be “evaluated” if they did not obey, the report said. The caller, who made a series of calls between 2 and 4:45 a.m., had detailed knowledge of the inside of the house and led the staff to believe that he was watching them on surveillance screens at the central office.

Two residents, ages 16 and 19, were initially given shocks while still asleep, and later while in restraints in the recreation room. The teenagers repeatedly asked what they had done wrong and were told they were being given shocks because of “behaviors they had exhibited during the 9:00 p.m. hour,” the report said.

While the residents were being administered shocks, they requested that nurses be called, the report related. One of the two residents receiving the shocks yelled that the shocks to his leg were “killing him.” The other complained that the shocks caused him such pain that “he felt as though he was about to have a stroke.”

That student was given water to drink by the staff, but no medical personnel were called in immediately, which the state report says was inappropriate.

Meanwhile, other residents woke up as chaos erupted in the house. One yelled that the call might be “a prank” and that staff should try to verify the call with authorities, the report said.

Around 5 a.m., the staff appeared ready to mete out the shock-therapy punishment on the third resident, but for a reason that’s unclear, someone called the central office. Only then did they realize they had been tricked.

Rotenberg officials say that, within hours of learning about the episode, they contacted law enforcement authorities. Group home officials are required by law to immediately report any cases of suspected abuse.

Later that day, several anonymous calls came into the telephone hotline of the Disabled Persons Protections Commission, also saying that wrongful shocks had been given to residents.

Ironically, the same video equipment used to monitor misdeeds of the residents was invaluable to investigators to determine the culpability of the Stoughton staff and of the center’s leadership.