Everyday Life: The least of our brethren

In 1998 the Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, writing in opposition to abortion, wrote: “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members.” Our governor, Sam Brownback, also opposes abortion, essentially on Cardinal Mahony’s grounds.

Assuming that the born are at least as worthy as the unborn, the question becomes: why, then, did he propose closing the Kansas Neurological Institute?

KNI is home to the weakest members of our society, people with, as they say, multiple challenges. Everyone living at KNI has serious cognitive deficits. Many can’t walk. Many can’t feed themselves. Many can’t toilet themselves. Some can’t roll over in bed. Some injure themselves. Some are capable of hurting others. Some are fed through tubes. Others need breathing tubes. Some are severely spastic, their limbs contorted. Some have severe and multiple seizures. All need skilled care, 24 hours of every day, 365 days a year.

No family can do this on its own. Local agencies aren’t always enough. What kind of services do you think a place like Chase County, population approximately 3,100 spread over 778 square miles, can support? KNI cares for people others can’t. In its group homes clustered on its Topeka campus, residents receive stimulation, social contact and, for those who are ambulatory, a little freedom on its protected campus. Residents of KNI are cared for by skilled people who truly care about those who depend on them.

Closing KNI will not save one dime. But, hey, maybe the private sector will take over and save the state money. If you think that, think again.

Because we’ve been here before, with mental illness. In the 1970s we closed or greatly shrunk a whole bunch of mental institutions and moved to small group homes. In itself not a bad idea, but accompanied by a really bad idea: funding cuts. Because, you know, the private sector was supposed to step in. And then there were prospective neighbors who didn’t want crazy people living near them. So here we are, having given up our communal commitment to care for folks with mental illness, many of whom fall right through the cracks onto the sidewalk where they hope they can find a doorway to sleep in.

I fear that we are moving in that direction if we close KNI. That we’ll fund just enough to pretend we’ve taken care of things, but that for many desperate families it will be like the old days, with severely handicapped members kept in a corner, fed, cleaned up and not much else. That we will once again have turned our backs, figuring it’s not our business.

This is not a political issue. It is not a budget issue. It is a moral issue, an ethical issue. As Jesus says in Matthew 25, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren, you have done it to me.” The question is: What are we doing, and what does that say about who we are?