Pirate Laureate of the High Desert Outback of the American Dream


Lessons from grateful dead children of a lesser god
From the 2-16-1997 Daily Sparks Tribune
Updated 8-21-2014

   Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
   Everybody knows the war is over.
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
   Everybody knows the fight was fixed.
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
   That's how it goes. Everybody knows.

Everybody knows the scene is dead
   But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
   What everybody knows.

— Leonard Cohen

I'm a loser. How do I know? Because somebody's dead, the latest in a long line of casualties I've been working 25 years to prevent.

I never met her, but I knew Leslie Carter. I never met any of the others, either. But I've done my best to patch up our tattered safety net to catch them when they fall.

I got started working for the rights of the mentally disabled quite by accident in 1972. I heard that state mental health staffers had been coerced to work for a certain pet assemblyman's re-election. Since the feds were paying the salaries in question, a violation of federal law was involved.

It took me more than two years to break the story. By then, an advocacy group had formed. Citizens for Humanity in Mental Health was headed by Lolly Giudici. They persuaded Robert Plotkin of the Ralph Nader-affilated Mental Health Law Project to look into Nevada patient care. In just three days, he identified a laundry list of potential legal actions. The showdown came at a public meeting at the Nevada Mental Health Institute in Sparks. The citizens' group decided to accept the state's promise to do better. Court supervision after winning a lawsuit would have worked a lot better than what we have seen in the intervening two decades. Court orders have teeth. Legislative and regulatory mandates have never worked.

A 1978 legislative report stated that patients often received no treatment besides drugs. Today, the Sparks institute remains basically a dispensary of mismanaged medication and big-money subcontracts.

While maltreatment of the mentally ill is nothing new, turning them into the hardcore homeless can be traced to one guy with good intentions. Back before he became TV's number one news punk, Geraldo Rivera was an ace investigative reporter for a New York City TV station. One day in 1971, he walked in, unannounced, to Willowbrook Hospital, a true snake pit of flesh warehousing.

People all over the big apple got sick while eating their dinner that night. Instead of happy talk, they saw twisted children lying in their own filth with flies all over them.

In originating the video ambush, Geraldo Rivera accidentally pioneered the era of patients' rights. The operative philosophy became treat them, or release them. Flesh warehousing was out. Community based care was in.

But "community facilities were not set up to provide continuing treatment for patients being released," Dr. E. Fuller Torrey wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 1987. "Adequate low cost housing for released patients was never developed," he added. "The attempts by all three levels of government to transfer the fiscal burden to one another and minimize their own responsibility would be ludicrous if human beings were not involved," he asserted.

If that sounds a bit like Ronald Reagan's "New Federalism," you've got a good memory. Reagan popularized cutting every budget but war and pork. Combined with crumbling Vietnam vets, the mentally disabled began to get very visible. The homeless problem was born.

Referring to a closed New York hospital, Dr. Torrey said "some of the same men who once used the building as part of the psychiatric hospital now use it as a shelter— only now there are no nurses, no doctors, no activities and no treatment." Sound familiar?

In 1971, newly-elected Gov. Mike O'Callaghan pushed for and won substantially increased funding for the state division of mental hygiene and retardation. The money was sorely needed and the booming state had it to spare, with plenty of extra help from the feds. Alas, the new bureaucrats in charge soon learned how to milk the fresh cash cow.

Public relations predominated over patient care. Getting federal funds at any cost became the priority. The infamous "schizomobile" was put on Reno-Sparks streets, cruising for anyone whose diagnosis might be stretched to include schizophrenia because of heavy federal money available to treat it. Sparks and Reno had a veritable schizophrenic epidemic, at least on paper. When I exposed the practice, institute administrators announced the program had been so successful that it was being eliminated.

Every time we broke a new scandal, the perpetrators usually got promoted. The names of the dead have never left me. Ada Marie Young was given heavyweight drugs without a blood test to see what else she might have taken. Drug interactions killed her. Jesse Ege, a severely retarded little boy, was allowed to wander away into a frozen Nevada night. They found his body along the Truckee days later. I got a top gun trial lawyer to represent his grandparents, but the old folks were too infirm to see it through.

John Parra. Gloria Clower. So many haunt my memory. Gloria was a beautiful but very insane young woman. At her family attorney's office, I viewed grisly police crime scene photos of her death. She supposedly drowned accidentally in a bath tub. "I suspect they killed her because she was so much trouble," the lawyer told me. He showed me substantial evidence backing up his charge.

Despite deaths and budget increases, nothing seemed to change. In 1982, I heard that the paper tiger of the hospital industry was due at the institute. The Chicago-based Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals was coming to Sparks.

My brother, who holds a master's degree in social work, told me "don't get your hopes up. JCAH is not an instrument of social change. They basically make sure all the paperwork's in order."

My bro knew of whence he spoke. I had to threaten legal action to even get an appointment with JCAH auditor Frank Mims. I told him that the same conditions which had killed so many patients still existed. I implored him to check actual conditions, not just file folders. Experts from the citizens group had advised me to threaten lawsuits if Mims refused to look into my allegations.

I especially warned him of potential bathtub drownings. Alas, talking to Mims was like talking to the Sphinx. He flew off to write his report accrediting the Sparks institute for another three years, keeping that federal money coming in.

Exactly three days later, Doris Peltier drowned in a bath tub, just as I had warned. Mims and Co. immediately announced an unprecedented reopening of their review. For a few days, I felt like I had done something good. But the golden glow fades fast when you advocate for the disfavored.

And that's who they are. They are losers. They often can't speak coherently. They are usually not pretty. They are often unruly, children of the lesser gods.

When I started tilting at the Nevada mental health windmill, Leslie Carter was a black and beautiful three year-old. Fast forward a quarter century, and that lovely child, now in an adult body, gets bludgeoned to death in the restroom at Wingfield Park — just a few miles upriver from the institute that kicked her onto the streets. Two little kids found her body.

I never met you, but I knew you as I knew all the others. I'm a loser, too, along with the rest of the living. You and your brothers and sisters died for our sins. Every so often, another one of you gets sent to us as a sacrifice to teach us the error of our ways.

When will we ever learn to go and lose no more?

TWILIGHT SZONY: Proving that God has a sense of humor, Reno Hilton boss FerenÁ Szony has been downsized. This Friday is his last day, the very moment Hilton goes before local tax authorities asking for a $263,000 property tax reduction. Why? Because $20,000,000 wasn't enough profit last year for our largest hotel-casino. The security guards Szony fired for refusing to take a 35% pay cut plan to picket the hearing, then march downtown. Join the fun at 10:30 a.m. Friday at the county commission chambers at Ninth and Wells. I think Szony should be invited to walk with the picketers — as long as he joins the security guards union first.

Be well. Raise hell.

Copyright © 1997, 2014 Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. This column originally published 2/16/97.

Reprints of the UNR financial scandal newsbreaks remain available for the cost of copying at
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Copyright © 1982-2014 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 45-year Nevadan, editor of and; and former chair of the City of Reno's Citizens Cable Compliance Committee, He is producer of Nevada's annual César Chávez Day celebration and serves as first vice-president, political action chair and webmaster of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. As always, his opinions are strictly his own. E-mail

Barbwire by Barbano moved to Nevada's Daily Sparks Tribune on Aug. 12, 1988, and has originated in them parts ever since.
Whom to blame: How a hall-of-famer's hunch birthed the Barbwire in August of 1987
Tempus fugit.

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