The city’s Health Department has consistently failed to protect city children from lead paint poisoning. It’s time to jump-start an oversight committee that will enforce the letter of the law, and hasn’t been formed despite a legal requirement.
So argues New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA) Attorney Amy Marx in a new letter to the mayor, the city’s top lawyer, and legislative leaders in which she calls for the the creation of a Lead Poisoning Advisory Committee.
Marx made that request in a Jan. 3 letter sent to Mayor Toni Harp, Corporation Counsel John Rose, West River Alder and Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers, Morris Cove Alder and City Services and Environmental Policy (CSEP) Committee Chair Sal DeCola, Westville Alder and Human Services Committee Chair Darryl Brackeen, Jr., and Quinnipiac Meadows Alder and Public Safety Committee Chair Gerald Antunes.
Click here to download the full letter.
In the letter, Marx, who who has led legal aid’s sustained criticism of the city Health Department’s handling of lead paint poisoning cases, calls on city leaders to follow Section 16-67 of the New Haven Code of Ordinances and appoint a Lead Poisoning Advisory Committee.
“We write to request that you appoint a lead poisoning advisory committee,” Marx writes to the mayor, “with the approval of the Board of Alders, to provide direction and oversight to the Health Department regarding inadequacies and deficiencies in the Health Department’s policy and practice for the protection of children from life-long cognitive, neurological, and behavioral damages caused by lead paint poisoning.”
City spokesperson Laurence Grotheer said the city is currently working on forming said committee. He said the city’s Corporation Counsel, Health Department, and Community Services Administration (CSA) officials are collaborating in that process. He said CSA Director Dakibu Muley is the city’s point person on the committee.
“It is not likely New Haven Legal Assistance will receive representation on the committee,” he wrote.
Marx and Legal Aid have filed three lawsuits against the city for injunctive relief for lead-poisoned children living in homes the Health Department had found to contain dangerous levels of lead. Marx also spearheaded Legal Aid’s lawsuits against the landlord of Church Street South. Those lawsuits forced the city to re-inspect properties that proved to have persistent leaky roofs and mold infestations.
“There has been no lawsuit on city lead policy,” Marx told the Independent in response to Grotheer’s comments. “We have instead sought to collaborate and be part of the team to solve the present concerns.”
According to the city law, which was first enacted in 1974 and revised in 1990, the committee must consist of 10 members, and include health care providers, Health Department officials, representatives from the city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI), and “representatives of legal services and human resources.”
“To date,” Marx writes, “this legally required lead poisoning advisory committee has neither been appointed, nor approved by the Board of Alders.
“It is needed now, more than ever,” she continues, “to address serious operational problems within the New Haven Health Department.”
Marx then lists 15 operational problems that she and her Legal Aid colleagues have revealed over the course of the four lead paint-related lawsuits they have engaged in over the course of the past year.
Those problems include:
• Utilizing paper files, rather than computerized records;
• Not utilizing proper protocols to reach families after being notified of a child with lead poisoning;
• Not conducting timely inspections when a child has been identified as lead poisoned;
• Not conducting thorough inspections which by law must include the interior of the unit, interior common areas, the exterior, and the soil;
• Not requiring landlords to post notices in common areas once lead hazards have been identified in any unit;
• Not requiring landlords to submit timely lead abatement plans for the proper abatement of the lead hazards;
• Not requiring landlords to complete abatement in a timely fashion;
• Not utilizing fines and criminal prosecution to ensure timely abatement by landlords;
• Not relocating lead poisoned children to lead safe premises when abatement can not be completed expeditiously;
• Not taking over and ensuring completion of abatement when landlord compliance is not forthcoming;
“The scope of the problem is alarming,” she writes.
Based on Legal Aid’s review of the public record, she believes that approximately 200 children in New Haven were reported to the city Health Department in 2017 as having lead poisoning. City clerk records indicate that the health department has not yet inspected all of the relevant homes, she writes, and the health department has posted lead paint abatement releases for only a quarter of those affected properties.
“In response to the revelation of these systemic deficiencies,” she writes, “New Haven Legal Assistance Association suggested that the City establish a working group to collaboratively fulfill a joint mission to protect children by providing guidance and oversight to the Health Department.” Legal Aid secured a commitment from Emily Benfer, a Columbia University professor, and from the national nonprofit Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) to volunteer time to serve on the working group.
Marx notes that Michael Harris, when he still served as the special assistant to the mayor, convened a meeting between Marx, city Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes, CSA Director Dakibu Muley, Health Department Director Byron Kennedy, and GHHI’s Wesley Stewart and Catherine Klinger.
“This working group seems to have stalled as Michael Harris has departed your administration,” she writes.
“We firmly believe it is far more constructive to spend time, and City resources, resolving important issues collaboratively and seeking to avoid future litigation for other families,” she writes, referencing the three different Superior Court judges who each chastised the city for its handling of lead paint abatement and ordered the city to relocate affected families at the city’s expense.
“We are optimistic that a working group of professionals knowledgeable about lead paint poisoning and abatement will not only fix the problems outlined above,” she writes, “but we could even collaborate to advance a lead safety program that could stand out as one of the best in the nation.”
At least one alder whom Marx copied on the letter, Westville’s Darryl Brackeen, Jr., expressed enthusiastic support for Marx’s creation of such an advisory committee.
“I believe that the activation of the lead poisoning advisory (reporting to the BOA Human services committee),” he wrote, “is crucial to addressing the long-term impact of lead abatement in our community. On August 7th, I called for a public hearing in order to further investigate the many lingering questions concerning spending, goals, and long-term planning surrounding this topic. Theoretically, all of the issues Attorney Marx presents and the concerns of the BOA Human Services committee would be addressed by the proposed advisory. I am not aware of any active advisory and if it does exist, it has never reported to me (as the chair of BOA Human Services), but the Health Department does annually report on the lead abatement progress and grants.”
Alders Walker-Myers, DeCola, and Antunes did not respond to requests for comment.
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