Why is there no justice for Valerie Lane?
October 7, 2011
OPINION by DAVE CONGALTON
I have been trying to figure out why.
I have been trying to figure out why I continue to be so upset by the video of Valerie Lane being brutally assaulted by a fellow patient at county mental health. It’s been more than a week since Karen Velie first broke the story and I can’t seem to shake the disturbing images that were captured on camera. I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare it to Rodney King—in both cases you watch the violence in utter disbelief, wondering how this possibly could be taking place.
But it did. You might recall the basic facts. Lane, 52, who suffered from severe migraines and depression, checked herself into the county facility on Johnson Avenue. She had been experiencing a severe migraine and depression and called her therapist, who told Lane to check herself into the mental health facility as a cautionary move.
On September 4, 2009, during her second day, Lane wanted a cigarette and was placed unsupervised in a caged area to smoke. Shortly thereafter, William Shirrefs, a man with a documented history of violence, a man who was there involuntarily at the insistence of law enforcement, was placed in the same area with Lane. As the camera reveals in gruesome detail, Shirrefs launched into an unprovoked attack on Lane, resulting in a gash to her head that required staples, an injured finger that still does not bend, bruised lungs, and a battered and cut face with eyes swollen shut.
Why did this happen? And more to the point, why are county officials responding the way they are? Oh, you haven’t heard? This is classic. The official county position on Valerie Lane is that the county is not liable. They’re not responsible for “fights” that take place between patients at county mental health.
Clearly folks in the county building can’t distinguish between a “fight” and an “assault.” So, no apology to Lane, no money to help pay her considerable medical bills, leaving Lane little choice but to retain an attorney and sue. Guess who ends up paying?
I’m still trying to figure out the why. I shared Lane’s story with folks from the local women’s shelters and the sexual assault center, hoping they will spread the word and make their displeasure known. I made sure two former county supervisors, both women, knew all the details. Jim Patterson’s campaign invited me to a fundraising BBQ on his behalf—I responded by asking what he might do to help Valerie Lane. No response yet.
I think all this bothers me on a couple levels.
First, is the obvious point. What happened to Valerie Lane, thanks to the camera, is not open to debate. The events of that day are a stain on the entire community and we should be doing everything possible to make it right. Instead, we insist that this poor woman suffer more. The county’s position is ludicrous, offensive, and demeaning. Lane is now the victim twice. The county needs to stop this nonsense and do the right thing, regardless of the cost.
Second, I hope that anyone concerned with violence against women in this community will hold the supervisors accountable for every day they delay an appropriate settlement in this case. If you happen to encounter a county supervisor in public, please inquire about Valerie Lane and ask why they are trying to weasel out of their moral obligation. They’re always quick to have their photos taken or to issue proclamations decrying violence. Gentlemen, here’s your chance to demonstrate just how serious you are on the issue.
Third, I submit that how the county is responding to this incident reflects a governing culture that is almost exclusively male. Five male county supervisors, a male county administrator, a male assistant county administrator, a male county counsel—men are the primary decision-makers in this process. There are no women in the upper echelons of San Luis Obispo County government. The most high-profile woman is Julie Rodewald who was promoted to county clerk-recorder in 1994, only after her boss Mitch Cooney was forced to resign over allegations of sexual harassment.
The county building on Monterey Street appears to have the strongest glass ceiling anywhere. What chance does Valerie Lane have in that world for justice? Apparently not much.
So all we can do is watch the tape—if we can sit through it without closing our eyes—wondering why.
Dave Congalton is a radio talk show host.