Protecting the Powerful at the Expense of the Vulnerable

People tend to look for a sense of community.  They join a church, a political movement or some other institution, or just identify with a segment of society.  Then the church, political movement, segment of society, et al., can do no wrong.

Always think of this when you feel inclined to lower the bar for the institution you identify with.  We all have a responsibility to set standards for our own behavior, and that means refusing to excuse the associate who is dangerous.

When people talk about the value of community policing and in-house investigations, they’re often in denial about something.  I won’t dismiss the fact that going to the legal authorities can be traumatic for crime victims, or that the accused might be treated unfairly.  We don’t have easy answers.

There’s a problem when a community has a strict policy of discouraging injured persons from filing police reports, though.  No one segment of society should have the final say on how serious accusations are investigated or resolved.  We’ve heard about how church officials transfer clergy members to different congregations after those people have done unspeakable things.  The officials are attempting to prevent public scandals, while creating more victims.  They believe that’s a fair trade-off.

Don’t obsess on churches as the sole offenders, though.  Similar things can happen anywhere.

During the 1980s, a pediatric hospital in the United States made an obvious, pathetic attempt to whitewash the patient abuse-related death of a three year-old girl.  The scandal began with a horrific incident in a dental clinic operated by the hospital.  The girl was held down with a restraint device and medicated with a combination of sedatives that shouldn’t have been mixed.  She was on a heart monitor, but due to the fact that she was screaming loudly the dentist removed the headset which allowed him or her to hear the girl’s heartbeat.  The patient went into cardiac arrest, and couldn’t be revived by the time the dentist noticed she was dead.

The girl’s family contacted a civil rights agency, and the agency demanded a criminal investigation.  The family was originally from a country in Southeast Asia, which prompted speculation that racism had something to do with the way the patient was treated.

Hospital administrators resisted the investigation, calling it outside interference.  Initially, they refused to release the body to the Medical Examiner’s office, saying they would have their own Forensics Department conduct an autopsy.

The local District Attorney said no.  At the D.A.’s request, a judge ordered the hospital to release the body to the Medical Examiner, and the hospital complied.

Although the District Attorney concluded there was enough evidence to prosecute the dentist for involuntary manslaughter, no charges were filed.  The D.A. actually had a conflict of interest in that case because his agency had an ongoing partnership with that hospital for collecting evidence from underage crime victims.  If something terrible happened to a child or a teenager in the northern part of that county, the unfortunate kid was usually taken to that hospital.  Nightmarish, right?

Due to the conflict of interest, the D.A. was supposed to refer the investigation to the state-level Attorney General’s office.  He didn’t, and then he declined to prosecute a crime which caused a child’s death.  It was outrageous.

The hospital administrators kept their dubious promise to investigate, and they cleared everyone involved.  Then they called a news conference to emphasize that everything had been handled right.  The dentist was never identified, and the administrators said no one would lose his or her job over the incident.

That crime was committed easily because of a closed system that interferes with vulnerable people being protected.  The dentist behaved as if the patient wasn’t human, and from then on everything was handled wrong because someone was beholden to someone else.  In the end, the child’s death was regarded as collateral damage by a healthcare facility that was responsible for her well-being.

There has to be a universal agreement that standards apply to everyone, including the people who investigate human tragedies.  In-house investigations can’t be trusted.  I would never agree to investigate a friend or an associate, but if appropriate I might want to act as a character witness.  A witness can’t convict or acquit anyone.

On the topic of witnesses:

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