NY State’s Brain Injury Council & Association: the tip of the iceberg?

The early stages of a  Kahrmann Advocacy Coalition investigation into the make up of brain injury associations across the country is finding there is no shortage of personal injury attorneys on board of directors.  The investigation is also beginning to reveal that few (if any) of these attorneys received any formal training in the brain.  As many know, people with disabilities and people with brain injury disabilities are often seen (and treated) as if they are little more than potential revenue streams.

Two perfect examples of dysfunction in the world of brain injury disability will be on display tomorrow in Albany: he New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council (TBISCC) and the leadership of the state’s brain injury association; both ineffective groups when it comes to advocacy and, given what is going on around the country, they may well be the tip of the dysfunction iceberg when it comes to brain injury disability.  The TBISCC will meet in Albany in part to elect a new council chair. However, a major part of the day’s opening agenda is a presentation to the council by Judith Avner, an attorney who is the executive director of the Brain Injury Association of NY State, and someone who several sources say recently blocked people with brain injuries from being on a committee that represented people with brain injuries (fiction writers would he hard pressed to come up with story lines this dysfunctional).  So, council members and members of the public will get to watch Ms. Avner represent BIANYS to a council head by Michael Kaplen, a personal injury lawyer who continues to claim the chair position on the  council even though his term expired years ago.  Not to be outdone on the gall front, Ms. Avner resigned from the council at their last meeting; an organizational feat that would make a magician proud since her term had already expired nearly 10 years ago. Imagine that, resigning from a position you no longer have. Voila!

Despite the fact some of the council members genuinely care about the council’s mission (to provide goals, ideas and strategies to the DOH to improve the life of New Yorkers with brain injury disabilities), the council, to date, has failed miserably. There are several reasons for this. The two council chairs to date, first, Charles Wolf, then, Michael Kaplen, are about as self-serving as it gets. At one point Wolf nominated himself for the position of chair and Kaplen, well…Kaplen’s term as chair expired some years ago but there he sits, claiming the mantel. Another reason for the councils failure is the state’s Department of Health, about as insular and arrogant a state agency that’s ever “walked” the planet.

And then, of course, there have been members of the Brain Injury Association of NY State on the council which is a glaring conflict of interest given the fact the DOH provides the association with a sizeable grant.

There is some hope for the council. If council members elect Barry Dain as chair, the council has a chance of moving in the right direction. If it re-elects Kaplen, nothing will change, and New Yorkers with brain injury disabilities, their families, and the healthcare providers that really do care will be the ones that suffer. The meeting tomorrow is open to the public. Following is the agenda:

 

TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY SERVICES COORDINATING COUNCIL

Empire State Plaza, Concourse Level

Meeting Room 125

Friday, May 31, 2013

10:30 AM – 3:30 PM

AGENDA

10:30 – 10:45 Welcome

Welcome new member Megan Clothier

Review and Approval of 1/23/13 Meetings Minutes

10:45- 11:15 Review of Brain Injury Association of New York State TBI Recommendations

Judith Avner, Executive Director, BIANYS

11:15 – 12:00 State Agency Updates

NYSED Gerri Malone

OPWDD Nicole Suto/Nina Baumbach

OMH Debby Zeterstrom

CQC Colleen Scott

OASAS Cher Montayne

OVS Ann Marie Calabrese

DFS Jeff Pohl

DOH Lydia Kosinski/Helen Hines/Kitty Gelberg

12:00 – 12:45 LUNCH (Members on their own)

12:45 – 1:15 Election of Chair

Nominees: Michael Kaplen and Barry Dain

1:15 – 2:30 Discussion of role and mission of TBISCC/

Discussion of Bylaw Revisions

2:30 – 3:00 Public Comment

3:00 – 3:30 Summary/Next Meeting Dates/Adjournment

NY State’s Brain Injury Council & Association: the tip of the iceberg?

The early stages of a  Kahrmann Advocacy Coalition investigation into the make up of brain injury associations across the country is finding there is no shortage of personal injury attorneys on board of directors.  The investigation is also beginning to reveal that few (if any) of these attorneys received any formal training in the brain.  As many know, people with disabilities and people with brain injury disabilities are often seen (and treated) as if they are little more than potential revenue streams.

Two perfect examples of dysfunction in the world of brain injury disability will be on display tomorrow in Albany: he New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council (TBISCC) and the leadership of the state’s brain injury association; both ineffective groups when it comes to advocacy and, given what is going on around the country, they may well be the tip of the dysfunction iceberg when it comes to brain injury disability.  The TBISCC will meet in Albany in part to elect a new council chair. However, a major part of the day’s opening agenda is a presentation to the council by Judith Avner, an attorney who is the executive director of the Brain Injury Association of NY State, and someone who several sources say recently blocked people with brain injuries from being on a committee that represented people with brain injuries (fiction writers would he hard pressed to come up with story lines this dysfunctional).  So, council members and members of the public will get to watch Ms. Avner represent BIANYS to a council head by Michael Kaplen, a personal injury lawyer who continues to claim the chair position on the  council even though his term expired years ago.  Not to be outdone on the gall front, Ms. Avner resigned from the council at their last meeting; an organizational feat that would make a magician proud since her term had already expired nearly 10 years ago. Imagine that, resigning from a position you no longer have. Voila!

Despite the fact some of the council members genuinely care about the council’s mission (to provide goals, ideas and strategies to the DOH to improve the life of New Yorkers with brain injury disabilities), the council, to date, has failed miserably. There are several reasons for this. The two council chairs to date, first, Charles Wolf, then, Michael Kaplen, are about as self-serving as it gets. At one point Wolf nominated himself for the position of chair and Kaplen, well…Kaplen’s term as chair expired some years ago but there he sits, claiming the mantel. Another reason for the councils failure is the state’s Department of Health, about as insular and arrogant a state agency that’s ever “walked” the planet.

And then, of course, there have been members of the Brain Injury Association of NY State on the council which is a glaring conflict of interest given the fact the DOH provides the association with a sizeable grant.

There is some hope for the council. If council members elect Barry Dain as chair, the council has a chance of moving in the right direction. If it re-elects Kaplen, nothing will change, and New Yorkers with brain injury disabilities, their families, and the healthcare providers that really do care will be the ones that suffer. The meeting tomorrow is open to the public. Following is the agenda:

 

TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY SERVICES COORDINATING COUNCIL

Empire State Plaza, Concourse Level

Meeting Room 125

Friday, May 31, 2013

10:30 AM – 3:30 PM

AGENDA

10:30 – 10:45 Welcome

Welcome new member Megan Clothier

Review and Approval of 1/23/13 Meetings Minutes

10:45- 11:15 Review of Brain Injury Association of New York State TBI Recommendations

Judith Avner, Executive Director, BIANYS

11:15 – 12:00 State Agency Updates

NYSED Gerri Malone

OPWDD Nicole Suto/Nina Baumbach

OMH Debby Zeterstrom

CQC Colleen Scott

OASAS Cher Montayne

OVS Ann Marie Calabrese

DFS Jeff Pohl

DOH Lydia Kosinski/Helen Hines/Kitty Gelberg

12:00 – 12:45 LUNCH (Members on their own)

12:45 – 1:15 Election of Chair

Nominees: Michael Kaplen and Barry Dain

1:15 – 2:30 Discussion of role and mission of TBISCC/

Discussion of Bylaw Revisions

2:30 – 3:00 Public Comment

3:00 – 3:30 Summary/Next Meeting Dates/Adjournment

How could it happen?

After reading a recent blog piece about a New York State brain injury council being in total disarray a friend of mine asked, “How could it happen?”

Good question.

How could a council, formed by an act of a state legislature, drift so glaringly far from its mandated purpose? The New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Council (TBISCC) is, “Under Article 27-CC of the New York State Public Health Law…mandated to recommend long-range objectives, goals and priorities, as well as provide advice on the planning, development and coordination of a comprehensive, statewide TBI program.” Yet, as readers of this blog already know, nothing has happened.

There are two people claiming to be chair and vice-chair who aren’t. If the council were to abide by its by-laws, one of the two hasn’t been a member of the council for more than nine years.

What is it that leads people to turn a blind eye, remain silent, including other council members, when others blatantly break the rules? That, and what leads those who break the rules to do so knowing their actions will damage the lives of people with disabilities, in this case New Yorkers with brain injuries? It is not a coincidence that several of the current vacancies on the council are meant for people with brain injuries, yet the agenda for the upcoming December 10 meeting doesn’t mention this.

Back to, how could this happen?

When my friend first asked the question the first thing that came to mind was Abraham Lincoln’s quote: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

Sit in on a few meetings with Michael Kaplen ( he still insists he is the council’s chair) and you’ll quickly learn he is a bully. I’ve been in meetings with him as participant and observer and witnessed him yelling at people and threatening people. Judith Avner, whose term on the council has been over for more than nine years yet still claims to be the council’s vice-chair, is another kettle of fish entirely. She charms, cajoles, and, were there awards for lip-service skill, would win gold or silver every time.

Having said all this, Avner and Kaplen are not hard to understand. Both strike me as being rather weak and insecure people who, by inflicting their will on others are able to feel some sense of control in life and some sense of, well, power. But what’s the cost? New Yorkers with brain injuries and their loved ones suffer as a result. The fact Kaplen and Avner, both attorneys, know their behavior leaves New Yorkers with brain injuries in the lurch reveals a lack of character.

The real question is, what empowers the enablers? The New York State Department of Health knows full well the council is a mess. Thus far it has said and done nothing. In fact, it sends high-ranking staff to council meetings and answers some council questions.  Perhaps one reason for the lack of DOH oversight can gleaned by  considering a July 5, 2011 blog post: “Minutes from a September 9, 2003 meeting say the council drafted a letter to then DOH official Betty Rice expressing the council’s dissatisfaction “with not being allowed to review (TBI Waiver Manual’s) revisions.”  This underscores what has been an ongoing pattern with the DOH for years; they are not interested in outside input. An ineffective council is to its liking.

But why the silence from other council members? Why the silence from members of the NY State Legislature? What are people afraid of, if, in fact, it is fear that gets in their way?

Perhaps, if council members, and others, listened to and heeded the advice of two heroes of mine (and many others) things might take a turn for the better.

  • Elie Wiesel: “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  “Our lives begin to end the day we become  silent about things that matter.”

This writer did send an email along with information about the council to Dr. Nirav Shah, the New York State Commissioner for the Department of Health.

Time to say goodbye to BIANYS’ Avner

Until and unless the board of the Brain Injury Association of NY State takes action, BIANYS will remain an insular presence controlled by a dictatorial executive director who should resign or be fired.

It seems clear that executive director Judith Avner has no real interest in truly interacting with or listening to BIANYS members, including those of us who live with brain injuries. She  shuts down  any and all attempts to improve transparency, maintains a dictatorial grip on the BIANYS board, website, Facebook page,  and newsletter, and has the board president marching to her orders. However, Ms. Avner is all too happy to ask anyone and everyone to donate money, appear at fundraisers, and have her picture taken with any and all celebrities who support BIANYS, mistakenly thinking BIANYS does what Ms. Avner says it does. I suspect it is safe to assume Ms. Avner is diligent about accepting her roughly $2,000 a week paycheck.

Save for its remaining valiant support group facilitators (volunteers all) and a small group of underpaid staff, most of whom are equally valiant in their work with those who sustained brain injuries in their youth, not as adults,  BIANYS has become little more than window dressing thanks to Ms. Avner, a seemingly anemic board, and a cluster of sycophants.

It’s hard enough managing life with a brain injury. It’s even harder when those who claim to care about you and say they advocate for you do anything but care and advocate, unless, of course, you count lip service. 

Over the past few weeks several BIANYS members and former BIANYS board members have been involved in series of email exchanges with BIANYS seeking answers to several questions and offering to help, not hurt, BIANYS, if, in fact, the answers are not all one would hope they’d be. While Ms. Avner will say all the things one would hope to hear at fundraisers and  BIANYS conferences, she refuses to even respond to any of the emails, some of which asked BIANYS to create an online forum for open discussion, whether that be a message board or the discussion component of their FB page.

Instead, the task of responding was given to Marie Cavallo, the BIANYS board president, a volunteer. As one person who read the email exchanges observed: “It looks like Marie’s lost her mojo.” Ms. Cavallo said BIANYS rejected the notion of a message board because it would be too time consuming. She said BIANYS rejected opening the FB page to discussion because, she claimed, healthcare providers had used the page to tout their wares. When it was pointed out that FB allows one to block companies and individuals, the next excuse she offered for nixing the FB idea was it’s too time consuming. Then, in what gave us all a flutter of hope, she said she would talk with BIANYS staff about opening the FB page (One wonders why it’s the board president and not the executive director talking with staff when the executive director is their supervisor. Perhaps Ms. Avner doesn’t have time for staff either.). Since then Ms. Cavallo has chosen to walk in lockstep with Ms. Avner and has ignored our emails and, needless to say, their FB page is still closed to discussion.

You may be wondering what were the questions we asked. Here’s a taste: Can you tell us how BIANYS informs its membership what it is advocating for? How does BIANYS decide what it will advocate for and how does BIANYS include its members in the discussion? (At one point Ms. Cavallo pointed out that BIANYS issues an annual report and publishes newsletters on its website. All true. But you’ve got a better chance of finding a needle in the Sahara desert than you do of finding word-one about BIANYS’ advocacy in the annuals reports or newsletters). We also asked how many person with a brain injury does BIANYS currently employ and how many has BIANYS employed since Ms. Avner took the helm on or about 1987. No answer.

Lest you think any of us are out to do anything other than hold BIANYS accountable let me say that in our emails we offered to help and support BIANYS in identifying individuals with brain injuries for employment and issues of advocacy. No response.

Lastly (for now), there are times the choices we make in life reveal our true colors. Several years ago when I was on the BIANYS board a fellow board member died. This board member, like me lived with a brain injury and had been in poor health for some time. However, poor health or not,  this person’s heartfelt commitment to BIANYS and devotion to those of us who live with brain injuries and our loves ones was unflinching. Had anyone on that board suffered a calamity in his or her life this person, poor health or not, would be there for them come hell or high water. Yet, when this good and decent human being left this world, Ms. Avner and Ms. Cavallo were no shows at the memorial service.

And then there’s this. At the first board meeting following this person’s death, Ms. Cavallo announced that Ms. Avner (who was sitting next to her) had been in frequent contact with the board member’s family and the family was doing well. Not long after this, I had the chance to have coffee with two members of the family (the board member’s spouse and child). I said I was glad Ms. Avner had been staying in touch with them. Both looked stunned. Ms. Avner had never called them, not even once.

Like I said at the outset, until and unless the board of the Brain Injury Association of NY State takes action, BIANYS will remain an insular presence controlled by a dictatorial executive director who should resign or be fired.

How do you sleep at night?

I need to put two things on this essay’s table in order to, I hope, make my point.

First. When I was a boy I complained to my father about a cliché, I don’t remember the cliché in question, what I do remember was my father’s thoughtful and accurate response. “Well, there’s a reason they become clichés.” He was and is right.

Second. I used to believe as I think many do that if you were able to factually establish that a behavior, a policy, a method, a strategy, would actually hurt innocent people, people would automatically care. Wrong. A sickening truth about some people is they simply don’t care. Even when you establish that, for, lack of a better phrase, their actions will hurt others, they still don’t care.

Okay, you may be wondering what it is that has me thinking about all this. Two things, really. An aspect of the presidential race and some who claim to care about those of us with brain injuries and it is becoming increasingly apparent they don’t.

When it comes to the  presidential race it is the blatant lying being done by the Romney-Ryan ticket that falls under the microscope of this missive. If they are elected and if they do what they say they will do and have done in the past the rights of women in my country will be, in a word, decimated. On top of that, millions will lose their health insurance and Romney’s assertion that we don’t let the uninsured die in our country because they can go to the emergency rooms is a lie, a flat out lie. He and those in his circle know damn well people will die if the affordable care act is  reversed. They don’t care.

And when Romney and Ryan say they support equal rights for women, they are, once again, lying. To lift a cliché into the light, actions speak louder than words. Ryan voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps women fight for equal pay for equal work; he voted for a bill tagged as the “Let Women Die Bill”  that would allow hospitals to refuse abortion care even if the mother’s life was in immediate danger and he co-sponsored a bill that would deny rape victims on Medicaid access to abortion. Romney’s no better. After all, he picked Ryan as his running mate (safe to assume he agrees with him) and, while governor of Massachusetts, Romney vetoed a bill giving rape survivors access to emergency contraception (to it’s credit, the Massachusetts legislature overrode the veto).

So, if you think Romney and Ryan support women’s civil rights, you’re either delusional, gullible beyond comprehension, or, like Romney and Ryan, you’re lying and you know it, and, like Romney and Ryan, you don’t care either.

Now, brain injuries. For several weeks now members of the Brain Injury Association of NY State as well as former BIANYS board members have been in an email exchange with BIANYS seeking answers to some incredibly reasonable questions. Now, the two people at the top of the BIANYS food chain, as it were, are Marie Cavallo, the board president, and Judith Avner, the executive director. Let me quickly point out that is has been made clear that Ms. Avner will communicate with us in this email discussion (how does she earn her roughly $2,000 a week salary I wonder?).

The questions we are asking?  Well, judge for yourself.

1) How many people with brain injuries does BIANYS employ and how many have been employed since Ms. Avner  took the helm in the late 1980s. No answer.

2) How do you (BIANYS) decide what you are advocating for or against, how do you let membership know, and how do you solicit membership’s input? Ms. Cavallo referred us to their annual reports and newsletters but these questions are not answered in either, not even close. We pointed this out and they responded with…no answer.

3) Ms Cavallo said the reason she, not Ms. Avner, is talking with us, is because she represents BIANYS. And so we asked another reasonable question. If we, as BIANYS members are not part of BIANYS, then are we, the very people she and Ms. Avner claim to care about so much, merely an outside entity? Does BIANYS sees its members as something separate and apart from, well, BIANYS? If so, we asked Ms. Cavallo, who exactly is she representing?  No answer.

The point is you can’t tromp around the state asking everyone and anyone for money because you say you care about us and are on our side and then when we have questions ignore us and simply hope we’ll go away (we won’t) and expect us to believe you actually do care.

All this brings me to the cliché that is the title of this essay, a cliché that appropriately applies to the likes of Romney and Ryan and Avner and Cavallo. How do you sleep at night?