A mom whose 3-year-old son is sick with lead-poisoning called the New Haven Health Department more than 20 times, begging for someone to enforce the laws and clean up the cracked and flaking paint at her Edgewood apartment.
After a month of messages, an inspector finally came out and confirmed the walls were coated with lead. But for the next five months, the property remained largely unabated. During that time, her 11-month-old son was poisoned too.
Those allegations are set out in yet-another lawsuit against the city by New Haven Legal Assistance Association, claiming that the Health Department failed its statutory duty to keep 3-year-old TJ Mims safe, as the concentration of metal in his blood tripled months after the city learned about hazardous lead-based paint at 969 Elm St.
“In the nearly 11 months that followed [after first being notified of Mims’s lead poisoning], [the City of New Haven] failed to protect his health, as required by city and state law, instead subjecting him to lifelong cognitive impairment on account of their malfeasance,” Amy Marx, a New Haven Legal Assistance Association staff attorney, wrote in a complaint.
The suit, filed Thursday afternoon, asks a judge to force the Health Department to take over the abatement. Under an injunction, the city would have to conduct an immediate inspection, prepare a lead abatement plan and clean up any hazards, relocating the family if necessary. The suit does not seek any monetary damages. An initial hearing has been scheduled for July 5.
As with many rental disputes, this one is complicated by the tenant’s poverty. Right after she found out her son was poisoned, Latesha Jones, the mom, stopped paying rent and now owes five months of back pay, leading her landlord Ronald Livieri to seek an eviction.
As the dueling cases go forward — the landlord against the tenant in housing court; the tenant against the city on the lead-paint docket — the proceedings pose tough questions about each party’s responsibility: How quickly does a landlord need to fix up property that’s sickened a kid? Even if he wants the tenants gone? Either way, shouldn’t the Health Department have stepped in immediately?
Mayoral spokesperson, Laurence Grotheer, declined comment, saying it’s the city’s policy not to comment on “pending court matters.”
This case marks the third time legal aid lawyers have brought the city to court in recent months for its slow response to lead poisonings. At properties on Whalley Avenue and Sherman Avenue, Marx also claimed that the city hadn’t enforced the law for months.
Outside the courtroom, the only place where it has been forced to answer publicly about mistakes, the Health Department has repeatedly walled off even general information about New Haven’s lead-safety programs and the millions of federal dollars it has received to tackle the problem. For two months straight, the city has refused to answer questions from the Independent about whether the inspectors are changing their practices, after NHLAA’s lawsuits have highlighted so many enforcement issues.
Both NHLAA and the Independent are pursuing separate appeals to the Freedom of Information Commission over the Health Department’s refusal to turn over inspection records.
Marx said that the cases she’s filed already establish “no doubt, a systemic failure,” but they represent just a small fraction of families out of the 1,200 kids who’ve been poisoned in New Haven over the last five years.
“It would be far more effective and productive for us to negotiate proper policy, rather than continuing to litigate, but at this point, New Haven Legal Assistance is addressing it as best we can,” she said. “The proper resolution of this matter would seem to require an external review, where somebody independent comes in, makes recommendations for how other health departments are doing it well and institutes whatever you need: staffing, computerized records, training — an entire reorientation to the vital importance of following the timeline and process set forth in city ordinance.”
Paul Kowalski, the city’s environmental health director, recently told the New Haven Register that all the cases were based on “lies and distortion.”
On Aug. 8, 2017, Jones took Mims to a lab, where she had his blood tested for lead poisoning. It came back at 6 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood — just over the warning level set by public health experts.
The Centers for Disease Control say that no lead exposure is safe. Even at moderate levels (between 10 to 25 micrograms of lead in a child’s blood), the neurotoxic metal can cause irreversible damage to intelligence and memory and can result in permanent hyperactivity disorders and learning disabilities.
Jones, a single mother of five who assists physical therapy patients at an East Haven rehabilitation center, said she was initially confused about what to do. “It’s not that bad,” she said, “but I know it still shouldn’t be no number.” A nutritionist stopped by and gave her a pamphlet listing iron-rich foods, like spinach, that can inhibit lead’s uptake.
No one else from the city came by, Marx’s lawsuit alleges, even though the Health Department was required, by ordinance, to inspect the apartment within five days after a lead-poisoning over the CDC’s limit is reported.
During the next few months, Jones didn’t think much more of it, as she struggled with a difficult pregnancy with her youngest, Traymar. Jones was bedridden early by back problems, and after delivery, she suffered from D.I.C., a condition that prevented her blood from clotting.
Since disability only covered two of the six months she was out, she fell behind on her $1,300 monthly rent.
Jones said that Livieri was initially understanding. In response to a subsequent eviction case, filed on Oct. 24, 2017, they stipulated that Jones would hand over her federal tax refund, including the benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit, in March to catch up on what she owed.
On Dec. 8, 2017, right before reaching that settlement, Jones brought Mims back for a follow-up test. That time, his blood came back at 17 micrograms of lead per deciliter.
After a month of calls, the Health Department finally checked the property. On Jan. 29, 2018, inspector Jomika Bogan took dust wipes, and on Feb. 12, she took an x-ray gun to the walls. In total, she found lead in 126 locations throughout the second-floor rental’s interior and exterior, Marx’s suit says.
On Feb. 13, 2018, the Health Department issued orders for a cleanup. But since then, little’s been done.
Marx’s suit alleges that the landlord did not submit a written lead abatement plan and he did not start work on time. “There remains chipping and flaking lead paint throughout the interior and exterior of the premises,” she wrote.
Though the Health Department had threatened monetary fines and criminal prosecution in its abatement order, it didn’t use them to order compliance, Marx added.
Reached by phone on Thursday, Livieri said that he’d fixed the exterior about a month ago. A visit by the Independent on Thursday confirmed that the front porch had been spray-painted, though incompletely. Livieri added that he plans to do the interior. soon “Of course, you have to,” he said. “It has to be done before I rent it.”
He said he’s waiting to evict Jones, after she missed a $200 installment on the money she owes in May. Altogether, he said she owes $6,825.
Livieri complained that Jones has been a difficult tenant. Whenever he showed up to fix the apartment, he said, the mom didn’t answer her own phone. “She’d always postpone it,” he said. “She looks for a reason, a reason, a reason, but she doesn’t pay her rent, doesn’t do anything.”
Jones, meanwhile, said he was actually the one that stopped answering her calls. She’d considered moving out as soon as the inspection results came back, worrying about the lead dust floating in the air and chips on the floor. But according to Jones, Bogan had said the city wouldn’t help if she left voluntarily. Jones now says she feels like she’s been “in catastrophe.”
“I feel like my home isn’t my home,” she explained. “I don’t know what’s safe and what isn’t.”
During the day, she blocks out all the windows to keep dust out, and when she gets home from work late at night, she scrubs everything clean. Now, she wonders if that made things worse. She says she’s been depressed and anxious, sometimes waking up in the morning to find herself shaking uncontrollably.
Mims’ behavior, meanwhile, has grown out of control. He throws bottles at her, runs off on the way to the car, and pushes other kids at the playground. A behavioral specialist prescribed sleeping pills to quiet his screaming fits at night.
“How come no one is doing anything?” Jones asked. “I just want someone to recognize that when there’s lead in a home, it’s serious. As health professionals, they’re supposed to protect the health of this city.”
As Marx sent the complaint over to the city’s corporation counsel on Thursday, Jones waited for her children’s latest blood test results in a clinic.
Even though the doctors initially didn’t want to draw Traymar’s blood, Jones convinced them to prick the infant’s finger. His initial count came back with 11 micrograms of lead per deciliter, double the CDC’s warning level. Another test, where blood is drawn venously, will give a more accurate reading.
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