While COVID raged, another deadly threat was on the rise in hospitals

Los Angeles Times

While COVID raged, another deadly threat was on the rise in hospitals

Emily Alpert Reyes – February 5, 2023

Los Angeles, CA - January 02: Patients on gurneys line the hallways inside the Emergency Department at MLK Community Hospital on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Los Angeles, CA. Its emergency department was expected to handle an estimated 110 patients a day when it opened seven and a half years ago, which would have totaled roughly 40,000 patients annually. Instead, it has seen more than 400 on hectic days and ultimately exceeded 112,000 patients in 2022. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
A patient rests on a gurney inside a Los Angeles hospital. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

As COVID-19 began to rip through California, hospitals were deluged with sickened patients. Medical staff struggled to manage the onslaught.

Amid the new threat of the coronavirus, an old one was also quietly on the rise: More people have suffered severe sepsis in California hospitals in recent years — including a troubling surge in patients who got sepsis inside the hospital itself, state data show.

Sepsis happens when the body tries to fight off an infection and ends up jeopardizing itself. Chemicals and proteins released by the body to combat an infection can injure healthy cells as well as infected ones and cause inflammation, leaky blood vessels and blood clots, according to the National Institutes of Health.

It is a perilous condition that can end up damaging tissues and triggering organ failure. Across the country, sepsis kills more people annually than breast cancer, HIV/AIDS and opioid overdoses combined, said Dr. Kedar Mate, president and chief executive of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

“Sepsis is a leading cause of death in hospitals. It’s been true for a long time — and it’s become even more true during the pandemic,” Mate said.

The bulk of sepsis cases begin outside of hospitals, but people are also at risk of getting sepsis while hospitalized for other illnesses or medical procedures. And that danger only grew during the pandemic, according to state data: In California, the number of “hospital-acquired” cases of severe sepsis rose more than 46% between 2019 and 2021.

Experts say the pandemic exacerbated a persistent threat for patients, faulting both the dangers of the coronavirus itself and the stresses that hospitals have faced during the pandemic. The rise in sepsis in California came as hospital-acquired infections increased across the country — a problem that worsened during surges in COVID hospitalizations, researchers have found.

“This setback can and must be temporary,” said Lindsey Lastinger, a health scientist in the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

Physicians describe sepsis as hard to spot and easy to treat in its earliest stages, but harder to treat by the time it becomes evident. It can show up in a range of ways, and detecting it is complicated by the fact that its symptoms — which can include confusion, shortness of breath, clammy skin and fever — are not unique to sepsis.

There’s no “gold standard test to say that you have sepsis or not,” said Dr. Santhi Kumar, interim chief of pulmonology, critical care and sleep medicine at Keck Medicine of USC. “It’s a constellation of symptoms.”

Christopher Lin, 28, endured excruciating pain and a broiling fever of 102.9 degrees Fahrenheit at home before heading to the Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. It was October 2020 and the hospital looked “surreal,” Lin said, with a tent set up outside and chairs spaced sparsely in the waiting room.

His fever raised concerns about COVID-19, but Lin tested negative. At one point at the emergency department his blood pressure abruptly dropped, Lin said, and “it felt like my soul had left my body.”

Lin, who suffered sepsis in connection with a bacterial infection, isn’t sure where he first got infected. Days before he went to the hospital, he had undergone a quick procedure at urgent care to drain a painful abscess on his chest, and got the gauze changed by a nurse the following day, he said. Such outpatient procedures aren’t included in state data on “hospital-acquired” sepsis.

Someone with sepsis might have a high temperature or a low one, a heart rate that has sped or slowed, a breathing rate that is high or low.

It can result from bacteria, fungal infections, viruses or even parasites — “and the challenge is that when someone walks into the emergency department with a fever, we don’t know which of those four things they have,” said Dr. Karin Molander, an emergency medicine physician and past board chair of Sepsis Alliance. Treatment can vary depending on what is driving the infection that spurred sepsis, but antibiotics are common because many cases are tied to bacterial infections.

The pandemic piled on the risks: A coronavirus infection can itself lead to sepsis, and the virus also ushered more elderly and medically vulnerable people into hospitals who are at higher risk for the dangerous condition, experts said. Nearly 40% of severe sepsis patients who died in California hospitals in 2021 were diagnosed with COVID-19, according to state data. Some COVID-19 patients were hospitalized for weeks at a time, ramping up their risk of other complications that can lead to sepsis.

“The longer you’re in the hospital, the more things happen to you,” said Dr. Maita Kuvhenguhwa, an attending physician in infectious disease at MLK Community Healthcare. “You’re immobilized, so you have a risk of developing pressure ulcers” — not just on the backside, but potentially on the face under an oxygen device — “and the wound can get infected.”

“Lines, tubes, being here a long time — all put them at risk for infection,” Kuvhenguhwa said.

Experts said the pandemic may have also pulled away attention from other kinds of infection control, as staff were strained and hospital routines were disrupted. California, which is unusual nationwide in mandating minimum ratios for nurse staffing, allowed some hospitals to relax those requirements amid the pandemic.

Nurses juggling more patients might not check and clean patients’ mouths as often to help prevent bacterial infections, Kumar said. Mate said that hospitalized patients might not get their catheters changed as often amid staff shortages, which can increase the risk of urinary tract infections.

Hospitals might have brought in traveling nurses to help plug the gaps, but “if they don’t know the same systems, it’s going to be harder for them to follow the same processes” to deter infections, said Catherine Cohen, a policy researcher with the RAND Corp.

Armando Nahum, one of the founding members of Patients for Patient Safety U.S., said that pandemic restrictions on hospital visitors may have also worsened the problem, preventing family members from being able to spot that a relative was acting unusually and raise concerns.

Molander echoed that point, saying that it’s important for patients to have someone who knows them well and might be able to alert doctors, “My mom has dementia, but she’s normally very talkative.”

Sepsis has been a longstanding battle for hospitals: One-third of people who die in U.S. hospitals had sepsis during their hospitalization, according to research cited by the CDC. But Mate argued that sepsis deaths can be reduced significantly “with the right actions that we know how to take.”

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Jefferson Health began rolling out a new effort to combat sepsis in fall of 2021 — just before the initial Omicron wave began to hit hospitals.

Its system includes predictive modeling that uses information from electronic medical records to alert clinicians that someone might be suffering from sepsis. It also set up a “standardized workflow” for sepsis patients so that crucial steps such as prescribing antibiotics happen as quickly as possible, hospital officials said.

The goal was to lessen the mental burden on doctors and nurses pulled in many directions, said Dr. Patricia Henwood, its chief clinical officer. “Clinicians across the country are strained, and we don’t necessarily need better clinicians — we need better systems,” she said.

Jefferson Health credits the new system with helping to reduce deaths from severe sepsis by 15% in a year.

In New York state, uproar over the death of 12-year-old Rory Staunton led to new requirements for hospitals to adopt protocols to rapidly identify and treat sepsis and report data to the state. State officials said the effort saved more than 16,000 lives between 2015 and 2019, and researchers found greater reductions in sepsis deaths in New York than in states without such requirements.

If your child gets sick, he said, “you shouldn’t have to wonder if the hospital on the right has sepsis protocols and the one on the left doesn’t,” said Ciaran Staunton, who co-founded the organization End Sepsis after the death of his son. His group welcomed the news when federal agencies were recently directed to develop “hospital quality measures” for sepsis.

Such a move could face opposition. Robert Imhoff, president and chief executive of the Hospital Quality Institute — an affiliate of the California Hospital Assn. — contended that expanding the kind of requirements in effect in New York was unnecessary.

“I don’t think hospitals need to be mandated to provide safe, quality care,” Imhoff said.

State data show that severe sepsis — including cases originating both outside and inside hospitals — has been on the rise in California over the last decade, but Molander said the long-term increase may be tied to changes in reporting requirements that led to more cases being tracked. California has yet to release new data on severe sepsis acquired in hospitals last year, and is not expected to do so until this fall.

For Lin, surviving sepsis left him determined to make sure that the word gets out about sepsis — and not just in English. In the hospital, he had struggled to explain what was happening to his mother, who speaks Cantonese. After recovering, Lin worked with local officials to get materials from Sepsis Alliance translated into Mandarin.

“I can’t imagine if it were my parents in the hospital,” he said, “going through what I was going through.”

50-car train derailment causes big fire, evacuations in Ohio

Associated Press

50-car train derailment causes big fire, evacuations in Ohio

February 4, 2023

In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line on Friday night, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below. (Melissa Smith via AP)
In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line on Friday night, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below. (Melissa Smith via AP)
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line on Friday night, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below. (Melissa Smith via AP)
In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line on Friday night, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below. (Melissa Smith via AP)
ASSOCIATED PRESS

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — A freight train derailment in Ohio near the Pennsylvania state line left a mangled and charred mass of boxcars and flames Saturday as authorities launched a federal investigation and monitored air quality from the various hazardous chemicals in the train.

About 50 cars derailed in East Palestine at about 9 p.m. EST Friday as a train was carrying a variety of products from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, rail operator Norfolk Southern said Saturday. There was no immediate information about what caused the derailment. No injuries or damage to structures were reported.

“The post-derailment fire spanned about the length of the derailed train cars,” Michael Graham, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters Saturday evening. “The fire has since reduced in intensity, but remains active and the two main tracks are still blocked.”

Norfolk Southern said 20 of the more than 100 cars were classified as carrying hazardous materials — defined as cargo that could pose any kind of danger “including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks.” Graham said 14 cars carrying vinyl chloride were involved in the derailment “and have been exposed to fire,” and at least one “is intermittently releasing the contents of the car through a pressure release device as designed.”

“At this time we are working to verify which hazardous materials cars, if any, have been breached,” he said. The Environmental Protection Agency and Norfolk Southern were continuing to monitor air quality, and investigators would begin their on-scene work “once the scene is safe and secure,” he said.

Vinyl chloride, used to make the polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin used in a variety of plastic products, is associated with increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute. Federal officials said they were also concerned about other possibly hazardous materials.

Mayor Trent Conaway, who earlier declared a state of emergency citing the “train derailment with hazardous materials,” said air quality monitors throughout a one-mile zone ordered evacuated had shown no dangerous readings.

Fire Chief Keith Drabick said officials were most concerned about the vinyl chloride and referenced one car containing that chemical but said safety features on that car were still functioning. Emergency crews would keep their distance until Norfolk Southern officials told them it was safe to approach, Drabick said.

“When they say it’s time to go in and put the fire out, my guys will go in and put the fire out,” he said. He said there were also other chemicals in the cars and officials would seek a list from Norfolk Southern and federal authorities.

Graham said the safety board’s team would concentrate on gathering “perishable” information about the derailment of the train, which had 141 load cars, nine empty cars and three locomotives. State police had aerial footage and the locomotives had forward-facing image recorders as well as data recorders that could provide such information as train speed, throttle position and brake applications, he said. Train crew and other witnesses would also be interviewed, Graham said.

Firefighters were pulled from the immediate area and unmanned streams were used to protect some areas including businesses that might also have contained materials of concern, officials said. Freezing temperatures in the single digits complicated the response as trucks pumping water froze, Conaway said.

East Palestine officials said 68 agencies from three states and a number of counties responded to the derailment, which happened about 51 miles (82 kilometers) northwest of Pittsburgh and within 20 miles (32 kilometers) of the tip of West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle.

Conaway said surveillance from the air showed “an entanglement of cars” with fires still burning and heavy smoke continuing to billow from the scene as officials tried to determine what was in each car from the labels outside. The evacuation order and shelter-in-place warnings would remain in effect until further notice, officials said.

Village officials warned residents that they might hear explosions due to the fire. They said drinking water was safe despite discoloration due to the volume being pumped the fight the blaze. Some runoff had been detected in streams but rail officials were working to stem that and prevent it from going downstream, officials said.

Officials repeatedly urged people not to come to the scene, saying they were endangering not only themselves but emergency responders.

The evacuation area covered 1,500 to 2,000 of the town’s 4,800 to 4,900 residents, but it was unknown how many were actually affected, Conaway said. A high school and community center were opened, and the few dozen residents sheltering at the high school included Ann McAnlis, who said a neighbor had texted her about the crash.

“She took a picture of the glow in the sky from the front porch,” McAnlis told WFMJ-TV. “That’s when I knew how substantial this was.”

Norfolk Southern opened an assistance center in the village to take information from affected residents and also said it was “supporting the efforts of the American Red Cross and their temporary community shelters through a $25,000 donation.

Elizabeth Parker Sherry said her 19-year-old son was heading to Walmart to pick up a new TV in time for the Super Bowl when he called her outside to see the flames and black smoke billowing toward their home. She said she messaged her mother to get out of her home next to the tracks, but all three of them and her daughter then had to leave her own home as crews went door-to-door to tell people to leave the evacuation zone.

As suicide rate keeps rising in Wisconsin, concentration in rural areas raises alarm

USA Today

As suicide rate keeps rising in Wisconsin, concentration in rural areas raises alarm

Natalie Eilbert – February 2, 2023

If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

Karen Endres knows that farming involves stress unlike other occupations.

Its main variables — weather, livestock, crops, sales — are largely beyond control. Physical demands and time commitment never ease. Family relationships, management practices and work-life balance all overlap. In how many jobs, after all, might three generations of a family work, live and plan for the future together?

And if that business isn’t going well, who do they talk to?

“We don’t have a community to connect with others about mental health and stressors,” said Endres, who operates a dairy farm with her husband, and works as the farmer wellness coordinator at Wisconsin Farm Center’s Farmer Wellness Program, part of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “It can lead us to very dangerous places.”

The most recent Suicide in Wisconsin report shows a 32% increase in suicides in Wisconsin from 2000 to 2020. Suicide is now the state’s 10th leading cause of death. Over the last three years combined, suicide rates were higher among rural residents than among urban residents. And overwhelmingly, the suicides were among men.

Some rural counties dwarf the state suicide rate.

According to the Wisconsin Violent Deaths Reporting System, Milwaukee County’s rate of suicide deaths was about 12 per every 100,000 people in 2018, the most recent year of comprehensive reporting. Nearly 300 miles north in Ashland County, the rate of suicide deaths was about 25 per every 100,000. Milwaukee County has a population of nearly 930,000. Ashland’s population: About 16,000.

“North of Green Bay, the population is very sparse and resources are very sparse. You have a high proportion of veterans living in those counties, higher proportions of firearm ownership in those counties, and so there’s just a number of factors that play into that,” said Sara Kohlbeck, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Kohlbeck conducts research in suicide and suicide prevention across different communities in Wisconsin. In 14 years, Kohlbeck has analyzed the deaths of nearly 200 Wisconsin farmers who died by suicide.

One farmer ended his life the day after receiving a change of address card in the mail from his wife, who’d recently left him. Another died a week after being “disgusted” over not being able to cut his own toenails, a result of new physical limitations. Yet another had just finished a phone call with a loan company. Another had a disappointing crop, the latest in a string of bad years. Still, others had blood alcohol content many, many times the legal limit.

Over 70% of farmer suicides involved firearms.

Kohlbeck and her team divided the hardships faced by farmers into five categories: acute interpersonal loss (a wife leaving), rugged individualism (a man facing new limitations), financial stress (a phone call from a loan company), the pressure of providing (struggling with the crops) and the lethal combination of alcohol and firearms.

“They’re just in an untenable scenario of inescapable pain,” Kohlbeck said. “Physical health issues, substance abuse, not having access to care, not being able to put food on the table — a lot of what I see is basic needs-related issues … that lead them to wanting to escape the situation they’re in.”

Chris Frakes is the group director of the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program, an anti-poverty agency. Every three years, it does a community needs assessment for the five counties it oversees. In 2017, Frakes had heard so many stories of farmers struggling to get by, she expected them to reach out for help. But few did.

The silence and the growing farm crisis led to the program getting creative about upstream prevention. In 2021, it received nearly $1 million from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health to target farmers’ mental health over a five-year period.

But Frakes is the first to admit that assessing the needs of farmers involves face-to-face interactions, ability to crack coded language and, above all things, development of trust. To do so requires people to understand the culture.

“We’re trying to really empower community members to not only recognize when somebody’s in a crisis, or when somebody’s struggling with thoughts of suicide but also to notice when somebody’s really stressed or struggling,” Frakes said.

Karen Endres works as the farmer wellness coordinator at Wisconsin Farm Center's Farmer Wellness Program, part of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. She frequently pays visits to fellow farmers to learn about their specific mental health needs.
Karen Endres works as the farmer wellness coordinator at Wisconsin Farm Center’s Farmer Wellness Program, part of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. She frequently pays visits to fellow farmers to learn about their specific mental health needs.
Domino effects of self-blame in farmer culture

Brenda Statz, a cattle farmer in Loganville, lost her husband to suicide in 2018. Leon Statz had struggled with depression, and four months to the day after he made the decision to sell his dairy cows, he was rushed to the hospital following an overdose. It was his first suicide attempt.

But Statz found it hard to talk about his mental health. Instead, he talked about the torrential rainfall at the end of 2016 and throughout 2017 that left his hay perpetually damp. He talked about crops growing moldy, cows getting sick from mycotoxins in their feed, vet bills shooting through the roof, tractors running aground in the mud. He talked about corn left unharvested.

Something that will always stay with Brenda Statz is a conversation she had with a psychiatrist in Iowa who told her farmers are a specific breed of people who will “always find a way to blame themselves.” If milk price falls, they’ll berate themselves for not forward contracting. If the rainfall ruins the hay, they should have cut the hay earlier.

“They will always turn it around that it’s their fault that they did something wrong — whether this stuff is totally out of their control, they will still find a way to say they did something wrong, that they should have been paying attention,” Statz said. “That’s farming.”

Kohlbeck’s studies suggest that fewer than half of the people who die by suicide have a diagnosed mental health condition. In connection with self-blame and lost control, what has jumped out to her is a sense of having lost usefulness.

“When a farmer is stymied by physical health issues, an ability to care for the farm and for those relying on them is compromised—in fact, they may see themselves as ‘no good.’ Their identity as a strong, physically able hard worker may be shaken,” Kohlbeck wrote in a study published by The Journal of Rural Health.

Lethal combinations of firearms and substances

What makes Wisconsin’s farmer suicides stand out isn’t the number of deaths the state sees every year; those numbers are proportionate across Midwestern farmlands. It’s the fact that Wisconsin holds the troubling distinction of more binge drinkers than any other state in the United States, with 23.5% of its adult population drinking excessively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s a higher number of suicides here because we have three things: We’re readily accessible to guns, firearms, because people hunt; you can isolate out on your farm very easy and you don’t ever have to leave the farm; and another thing is, as a state, we’re known for drinking,” said Brenda Statz. “So, you mix those three things together and it could spell disaster for some.”

Brenda Statz, widow and the wife for 34 years to Leon Statz. Leon died by suicide after struggling to keep his farm solvent.
Brenda Statz, widow and the wife for 34 years to Leon Statz. Leon died by suicide after struggling to keep his farm solvent.

Kohlbeck noted that nearly 20% of the farmers who used a firearm in their suicides also had alcohol in their systems at the time of their death.

Statz knows all too well that farmers won’t go to doctors, even if they need to, partly because they’re “fixers, even when everything’s going wrong,” and partly because, she said, even if they’re on death’s door, “there’s always work to do on the farm,” she said.

“Many individuals use alcohol as a means for coping with the stress they encounter in their daily life,” Kohlbeck said. “And, unfortunately, alcohol alters your decision-making when you’re in a crisis.”

Self-medicating with alcohol and opioids, Endres said, is a big problem. Frakes, from Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program, said farmers keep what she calls a “rainy day” stock of opioids from previous injuries. At a time when opioids are reaching historic levels in the state, especially in rural areas, the combination leads to catastrophic outcomes for farmers, Frakes said.

In less than a decade, overdose deaths in Wisconsin have more than doubled, from 628 in 2014 to 1,427 in 2021, according to the state Department of Health Services. Hospitalizations for overdoses are rising as well, from 1,489 hospital visits in 2014 to 3,133 in 2021. It’s suspected that, in 2022, 8,622 ambulance runs within Wisconsin were the result of opioid overdose cases.

Largely rural counties — Menominee, Ashland, Forest, Douglas, Jackson and La Crosse counties — had suspected rates of opioid overdoses that far exceeded the state average, sometimes 100 times the state rate. Further, both deaths and misuse of opioids are higher in Wisconsin than the national average.

Finding a trustworthy doctor is a challenge

Since she lost her husband to suicide, Statz travels to churches across the state to promote mental health in farmers as part of her work with the Farmer Angel Network, a project out of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

Part of the mindset for farmers is to work hard and work constantly. Farmers aren’t the type to ask for — or able to take even if they want it — time off and, instead, see it as a success when somebody works years without a break.

"Suicide doesn't just impact that one person; it impacts the whole family," says Brenda Statz, Sauk County Farm Bureau member who lost her husband Leon in 2018 following his third suicide attempt.
“Suicide doesn’t just impact that one person; it impacts the whole family,” says Brenda Statz, Sauk County Farm Bureau member who lost her husband Leon in 2018 following his third suicide attempt.

When she spoke as a representative of Farmer Angel Network with Reedsburg Area Medical Center, Statz explained to the staff there that farmers come to counseling because their spouses have “nagged them” or they’ve run out of other options.

That doesn’t mean they’re ready to talk, though.

“He’s going to come in your office and he’s going to talk about the weather, he’s going to talk about his dog, he’s going to talk about everything, except why he’s there,” Statz said. “You’re going need a little more time when a farmer comes in. They’re going to not be upfront right away, because they’re still checking you out to see how much they can trust you.”

Many farmers use small talk to gain trust, Frakes said. And they’re not prone to come out and say they’re struggling. Farmers can shoo terms like anxiety and depression away like flies, but when they start to talk about issues like crops failing, that’s the time to start paying attention, she said. Crop failure can mean livestock feed is short for the winter, which can interfere with farm operations.

“Instead of asking if a farmer is depressed, it’s better to ask them what’s keeping them up at night. Asking a slightly different set of questions to try and get at what’s really happening, plus small talk, is a way to build trust,” Frakes said.

The lack of access to counseling services — and an evergreen reluctance to seek care — means when a farmer does feel mental distress, it’s usually already an emergency. And for 21 Wisconsin counties, the closest option for residential crisis stabilization involves a trip across county lines.

Statz’s husband Leon attempted suicide three times in 2018. After Leon’s first attempt on April 21, it would be another six weeks before he could see a counselor. His second attempt happened in July.

He was dead by October.

Resources for farmers
  • Wisconsin Farm Center has a toll-free, 24/7 farmer wellness line for anyone experiencing depression or anxiety, or who just needs to talk, at (888) 901-255​8.
  • The Farmer Wellness Program offers weekly support groups for farmers and farmer couples to share challenges and offer encouragement, comfort, and advice nine months out of the year (except between July and September). Zoom meetings take place either on the first Monday or the first Tuesday​ of every month at 8 p.m.
  • The Farmer Angel Network provides its members with access to mental health resources through educational programs, informational flyers and trained personnel. Summer months include all-expense paid ice cream socials, kid-friendly drive-in movies and more for over 50 farm families to enjoy a night off.
  • Farm Well Wisconsin partners with local experts to build on and connect existing community resources, gives community leaders the tools they need to support and intervene in crises, and improves knowledge of health providers serving rural populations.
  • Wisconsin Farmers Union is a member-driven organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors and civic engagement.

More: One mom’s journey: The (lack of) paint on the walls colors the stigma surrounding mental health

Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Central Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. 

Donald Trump and golf: Fancy resorts, A-List partners, cheating at highest level

Palm Beach Daily News

Donald Trump and golf: Fancy resorts, A-List partners, cheating at highest level

Tom D’Angelo, Palm Beach Post – February 3, 2023

Donald Trump has a long (creative) history with golf. He owns fancy resorts and lavish courses around the world. He has played with the biggest names. And he’s received endorsements from some of the most well-known golfers in the world. Even besides himself.

But above all, the former president’s dubious claims on the course have become legendary, and were the subject of a 2019 book by sportswriter Rick Reilly: Commander in Cheat.

“Trump doesn’t just cheat at golf,” Riley wrote. “He throws it, boots it, and moves it. He lies about his lies. He fudges and foozles and fluffs. At Winged Foot, where Trump is a member, the caddies got so used to seeing him kick his ball back onto the fairway they came up with a nickname for him: ‘Pele.’”

President Donald Trump tweeted this photo after golfing with local golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019
President Donald Trump tweeted this photo after golfing with local golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019

Trump a self-proclaimed champion:Trump declares himself the winner of his own club championship – in the Trumpiest way ever

Trump and LIV Golf:Trump spends LIV pro-am praising his game and proving Joe Biden is in his head | D’Angelo

Just ask members of Trump International West Palm Beach who arrived for the final round of their Senior Club Championship on Jan. 22 only to find Trump’s name at the top of the leaderboard … when he didn’t play the first round.

But he did play a round earlier that week, claimed he had a good day and decided to use that score for the first round of the Senior Club Championship. He then called it a “great honor” to have won the tournament on social media, adding, “he was hitting the ball long and straight.”

Those who know him certainly were not surprised.

Here is some of the history Trump, who lives in Palm Beach, has with golf:

Courses around the world

Trumpgolf.com lists 18 courses under the heading ‘Our Properties’, including 12 in the United States. Of those, three are in Florida: Jupiter, West Palm Beach, Doral.

Those courses have hosted many PGA and LPGA events, but Trump’s relationship with the PGA Tour soured in 2016 when the tour moved the World Golf Championship out of Trump National Doral and to Mexico City after losing its sponsor, Cadillac.

This angered Trump for so many reasons. His attitude toward Mexico was made clear as he prepared to run for president when he said of the country: “They are not our friend, believe me. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

That continued when learning the tour was dropping Doral for Mexico City. “They’re moving it to Mexico City which, by the way, I hope they have kidnapping insurance.”

That relationship fractured even more when the PGA of America took a major away from one of Trump’s courses four days after Trump supporters rioted at the United States Capitol. The organization moved the 2022 PGA Championship from Trump’s course in Bedminster, N.J., to Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.

All of this led to Trump’s support for LIV Golf, the startup league headed by Palm Beach Gardens’ Greg Norman and financed by the Saudis. LIV has become a rival of the PGA Tour and three LIV events this year will be held at Trump properties.

The old switcheroo

Ted Virtue, founder and CEO of MidOcean Partners, a New York-based alternative asset management firm, won the club championship at West Palm Beach when Trump was president. At the time, Trump was in Singapore and missed the event.

Here is the story Reilly told and also was reported in Golf.com.

Trump sees Virtue on the back nine of the course one day and tells him he didn’t really win the club championship, “because I was out of town.” So he tells Virtue they will start there and play to see who the real champion is. Virtue has no choice.

“Apparently, they get to a hole with a big pond in front of the green,” Reilly said. “Both Ted and his son hit the ball on the green, but Trump hits his in the water. By the time they get to the hole, though, Trump is lining up the son’s ball. Only now it’s his ball and the caddie has switched it.

“The son is like, ‘That’s my ball!’ But Trump’s caddie goes, ‘No, this is the president’s ball; your ball went in the water.’ … Trump makes that putt, and wins one up.”

Where’d that ball come from?

Trump was playing in a charity event at a prestigious South Florida course when he was part of a foursome that included an NFL quarterback and professional golfer, according to a participant who was at the event.

On a par-3 that was playing more than 200 yards, no one hit the green, including Trump, whose tee shot clearly was short.

Two of the golfers flew the green, the balls landing in a gully. As they walked back up the hill to check out the pin placement, they noticed a ball sitting feet from the hole.

Trump tells them it was his ball and they must have not seen his tee shot land on the green.

“This guy cheats like a Mafia accountant,” Reilly once told Vox.com.

Mark Cuban feud

Trump and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had a legendary feud in 2013, with Trump attacking Cuban’s team and, of course, his golf.

By the end of a two day meltdown, and after Trump said he won yet another club championship at West Palm Beach, Trump pulled out the big guns:

“I’ve won 18 Club Championships including this weekend. @mcuban swings like a little girl with no power or talent. Mark’s a loser.”

Trump now has claimed to have won more than 20 club championships. Reilly once said the best player at that level he knows had won eight.

Reilly said in the Vox interview Trump told him whenever he opens a new golf course he plays the first club championship by himself and declares that the champion and puts his name on the wall.

“But it’s usually just him and Melania in the cart and nobody else,” Reilly said. “He just makes it up.”

Tiger tale

Soon after he became president Trump set up a foursome with Brad Faxon, Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson. Trump and Faxon were partners.

Trump was allowed to hit from closer tees and was allowed to subtract a stroke on the eight hardest holes. On one hole, Trump hits his tee shot into the water and tells Faxon to throw him a ball. “They weren’t looking,” he said. His second tee shot goes into the water. So he drops where he should have after his first water ball, hits what was his fifth shot. After making what actually was a seven, the players were asked their scores.

When Trump was told Tiger made a three, he says he made “four for a three (with the stroke).”

‘Tough luck’

Trump invited football announcers/analysts Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski to one of his courses. He chose Gruden as his partner.

Tirico hit a 3-wood about 230 yards onto the green on one hole. When he arrived the ball was in a bunker about 50 feet from the pin.

“Tough break,” Trump said.

Tirico later was told by Trump’s caddie that his shot was about 10 feet from the hole and Trump threw it into the bunker.

“I watched him do it,” the caddie said.

So how good is Trump at golf?

Depends who you ask. Hall of Famer Ernie Els witnessed a hole-in-one by Trump last year at West Palm Beach. I asked Els to assess Trump’s game.

“He can really strike the ball,” Els said. “He makes good contact. He’s got a good swing. Like any amateur, you got to do the short game practice. I keep talking to him about his chipping. He’s a pretty good putter. Back in his day, he had to be a 4- or 5-handicap. Today, he’s probably a 10, 12.”

If you praise Trump’s game, it’s definitely not fake news.

Trump has played with the best of the best. Jack Nicklaus, Els, Woods, Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka among them.

“President Trump plays pretty well, not bad at all,” Nicklaus said in 2020.

Koepka played nine holes with Trump last year in the Pro-Am at Doral before the LIV event. When asked about Trump’s game he gave a lukewarm endorsement.

“I think he’s actually a pretty good putter,” Koepka said. “He had a lot of good putts today that just didn’t go in.”

Trump stopped several times to chat between holes during the Pro-Am at Doral. “Where are the golf writers?” he said at one point. “What do you think? Trump is pretty good, isn’t he?”

Later, when he was asked what he thought about his game, Trump said: “I hit it straight, I hit good drives, I hit good irons.”

Tom D’Angelo is the senior sports columnist for The Palm Beach Post.

Major Russian offensive will end by April and will not be successful ISW

Ukrayinska Pravda

Major Russian offensive will end by April and will not be successful ISW

Ukrainska Pravda – February 2, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have overestimated the Russian military’s own capabilities again, and therefore its major offensive in the east of Ukraine will end prematurely in the spring rainy season and will not be effective, analysts of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) are convinced.

Source: ISW  

Details: Andrii Cherniak, Representative of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine, told the Kyiv Post on 1 February in an interview that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the Russian military to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023. Cherniak also stated that Russian forces are redeploying additional unspecified assault groups, units, weapons, and military equipment to unspecified areas in the east of Ukraine.

“Putin may have overestimated the Russian military’s own capabilities again. ISW has not observed any evidence that Russian forces have restored sufficient combat power to defeat Ukraine’s forces in east of  Ukraine and capture over 11,300 square kilometres of unoccupied Donetsk Oblast (over 42 percent of Donetsk Oblast’s total area) before March as Putin reportedly ordered,” ISW emphasised.

According to the ISW’s preliminary assessments, a major Russian offensive before April 2023 would likely prematurely culminate during the April spring rain season before achieving operationally significant effects.

“Russian forces’ culmination could then generate favourable conditions for Ukrainian forces to exploit in their own late spring or summer 2023 counteroffensive after incorporating Western tank deliveries,” a report of ISW said.

Background:

  • Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defence of Ukraine, said that Russia may launch an offensive on two fronts on the anniversary of the 2022 invasion.
  • According to Bloomberg, despite enormous losses, Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning a new offensive in Ukraine, while at the same time preparing his country for years of confrontation with the US and its allies.

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Russia’s Shadow Army Accused in Mysterious Teen Abductions

Daily Beast

Russia’s Shadow Army Accused in Mysterious Teen Abductions

Philip Obaji Jr. – February 2, 2023

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

KENZOU, Cameroon—It was the middle of the night when armed men from the local wing of Russia’s Wagner Group, commonly referred to as “Black Russians,” allegedly arrived at Ali’s home.

“They looked straight into my eyes and said, ‘If you don’t come back to us, you and your family will be killed,’” Ali, who had spent close to a year working closely with the Wagner Group, told The Daily Beast. “They left without saying anything else.”

Ali’s wife, his three adolescent daughters and three adult brothers were allegedly at their three-bedroom home in the outskirts of Berbérati—a city in the southwest of the Central African Republic (CAR)—when the men arrived armed with machine guns. “As they stepped out of the house, one of them looked at me and said ‘Tell your husband to do what is right or else all of you will suffer,’” Fatou*, Ali’s wife, told The Daily Beast.

Minutes later, the armed men allegedly stormed the nearby home of Hassan* and issued him a similar warning, but with a more severe punishment for allegedly masterminding the exit of several Black Russians from the Wagner Group.

“They said if I don’t return to the [Black Russians] group they’ll seize me and my family and torture us for days before they eventually kill us,” Hassan, a former Black Russian who was living in a two-bedroom home with his mother and two teenage sons when the armed men arrived, told The Daily Beast. “They believe I have been the one encouraging other members to leave the group because I was among the first to quit.”

Russia’s Secret Recruits Allegedly Abandoned, Starving, and Missing in Action

The Wagner Group, which showed up in the war-torn Central African Republic around 2018, has relied heavily on local recruits since last year, after hundreds of its Russian mercenaries were pulled from Central Africa and sent to Ukraine to fight Vladimir Putin’s war. But poor welfare for Black Russians—and fear that they could be deployed to fight overseas without compensation or insurance—has forced many to abandon the group.

The threats to their families weren’t enough to force Ali and Hassan back to the group. Both men subsequently stayed away from their homes to avoid being captured and killed—the kind of punishment the Wagner Group is known to hand out to fighters who disobey orders or desert the organization.

“We didn’t take their threat of harming our families seriously because that is not how they [Wagner mercenaries and local recruits] are known to act,” said Ali, who—along with Hassan—had to squat in a faraway unfinished building, where construction work had long been abandoned, to hide from their former colleagues. “Throughout the time we worked with them, no one targeted anyone’s family. When you commit an offense, you face the consequences on your own.”

Ali and Hassan would later realize that they misjudged the group they had been part of—and that their refusal to rejoin the Black Russians could prove costly.

According to Hassan’s family, the same men who visited the previous week returned to his home and seized his two sons, who are 15 and 13 years old, vowing not to release them until their father returns to the Wagner unit to face discipline. Hassan and his mother, who was the only one at home with the boys when they were taken away, fled to Cameroon the following day as they feared their lives were in danger.

“They dragged my grandsons from the house and threw them into a [pickup] truck and then drove them away,” Hassan’s mother Bintou* told The Daily Beast in the Cameroonian border town of Kenzou, where she and her son live in a single-room mud house. “We don’t even know whether he is dead or alive.”

On the same day Hassan’s sons were seized, Ali’s three younger brothers, who are 27, 24, and 23 years old, left home in the morning to attend a music festival at a playground just outside Berbérati. But they never returned home and no one has seen them since then, according to family members who believe the Wagner Group is responsible for their disappearances.

“It must be the same people who came to our home to threaten us that kidnapped them,” said Ali, who also fled Berbérati to Kenzou along with his wife and daughters. “They want me to meet face to face with them, that’s why they are holding my brothers.”

Three years ago, Ali and Hassan joined the Union for Peace (UPC), a Central African rebel group fighting for control of the Ouaka central province, located at the border between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south. Their involvement with the UPC, whose leader Ali Darassa was sanctioned over a year ago by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) “for serious human rights abuses”, lasted only a few months. It was cut short by an enticing offer from Wagner Group, run by Putin’s close friend and ally Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Ali and Hassan were among hundreds of UPC rebels who surrendered to the CAR military in December 2021 after both men said they were promised a chance to work with the Wagner Group and earn a monthly pay of about $1,000.

But when Wagner stopped paying some Black Russians after a few months, and many local recruits mysteriously disappeared towards the end of 2022, both Ali and Hassan decided to leave the group and move away from their base in the capital Bangui to Berbérati.

“The main reason some of us left the [Black Russians] group is because we feared they could send us to war in Ukraine without giving us the chance to inform our families,” said Ali, who has been in touch with some of his colleagues deployed to Ukraine in the early months of Russia’s invasion and allegedly abandoned thereafter. “If we die on the battlefield, no one would know anything about it.”

Ali and Hassan believe the Wagner Group’s decision to not reveal the whereabouts of Black Russians deployed to Ukraine’s Donbas region is based on financial reasoning.

“They don’t want to pay the death benefit they promised they will pay to families of fighters who died while in active service,” said Hassan. “If families don’t know their sons are fighting in Ukraine, they won’t also know when they are killed in combat and can’t demand death benefit as a result.”

For years, and especially since a brutal civil war broke out in CAR in 2013, the Cameroonian border town of Kenzou has welcomed thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict in their country. Now, the commercial town has a new type of guests: ex-Wagner recruits running away from imminent attacks from their former employers.

“We know for sure that there are former CAR rebels now living in this town with us,” Vincent Olembe, a local chief in Kenzou, told The Daily Beast. “Luckily, they’ve assured us that they aren’t here for trouble but were forced from their country because their lives were in danger.”

Putin’s Prison Recruiting Scheme Takes a Big, Desperate Turn

The CAR government and Prigozhin did not respond to a series of requests for comment on the allegations made by Ali and Hassan. The Daily Beast sent emails to the spokesperson of the CAR government and to Concord Management, a company majority-owned by Prigozhin, but did not receive a reply.

In Kenzou, Ali and Hassan are confident that their family members wouldn’t be hurt by the Wagner Group or those working closely with them. They believe the Russians will use them as leverage.

“If they [the seized family members] were women, I would have been worried,” said Hassan, who—like Ali—turns 40 this year. “But from the way I know them to operate, anyone who is arrested or captured is offered a chance to join the Black Russians and be forgiven or punished if he refuses.”

One day, said Hassan, “I’ll reunite with my boys.”

*The names of these sources have been changed for fear of retribution.

Russian runaway officer reveals how Ukrainians are tortured in captivity

Ukrayinska Pravda

Russian runaway officer reveals how Ukrainians are tortured in captivity

Ukrainska Pravda – February 2, 2023

Konstantin Yefremov, former Russian military officer who fled Russia, has claimed that Ukrainian men were cruelly tortured in captivity; Russian soldiers shot at them and threatened to rape them.

Source: Yefremov in the interview with the Russian BBC News

Details: In April 2022, Yefremov’s unit guarded their “rear HQ” in Kamianka village in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Ukraine. The colonel was in charge of questioning Ukrainian captives there.

Quote from Yefremov: “Three Ukrainian military captives were brought there one day. One of them confessed he was a sniper. And the colonel’s eyes lit up when he heard it. He beat him up, pulled down his pants and asked if he was married. He [the captive] answered yes. The colonel told [us] to bring a mop: ‘We will make you a girl now and send the video to your wife.’

The colonel asked a captive once to name all nationalists that he knew in his regiment, his platoon. And the guy did not understand the question, he said: ‘We are marines of the Armed Forces of Ukraine’. The Colonel beat him up and knocked out a few teeth.

He put a gun to a guy’s head as he was blindfolded and told him: ‘I am counting to three, and then I will shoot you in the head.’ He counted, then shot close to the head. He shoots close to one ear and then keeps asking questions.”

Details: The officer has stated that these questioning and tortures “had been going on for a week – every day, or night, sometimes twice a day”.

He has also recollected that the captives were held in a garage. The Colonel forbade feeding them with normal food and only allowed us to give them water and rusks.

Moreover, according to Yefremov, the Colonel shot through the captive’s arm keeping the bone bone intact, and shot his right leg, breaking a bone, once during the questioning.

The BBC has pointed out that it cannot confirm Yefremov’s detailed statements, but it highlights that those statements correspond with other comments about torturing Ukrainian captives.

 

Photo: Russian BBC News

Background: Senior Lieutenant Yefremov was a commander in a mine clearance platoon of the 42nd Guards Motor Rifle Division, with its headquarters in Chechnya. Yefremov has said that he arrived in Dzhankoi, Crimea, on 10 February 2022, before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Yefremov has assured the press that even officers did not believe that there would be a war and thought they were going to military exercises.

He has claimed that he realised on the first day of the war that he did not want to fight and tried to abandon service. At first, the command refused, calling him a coward and a traitor, and threatened with prison for desertion, but they finally dismissed Yefremov, and he left Russia.

Yefremov has said that for the last three years, he was clearing mines in Chechnya that survived two wars – until the Russian war against Ukraine began; he loved his job and believed he was helpful.

“I am apologizing to the Ukrainian people that I came to their home armed and as an unwelcome guest. And I thank God that no one suffered from my hands, that I did not take anyone’s life on that land. And thank God I was not hurt. I do not even have a moral right to ask Ukrainians to forgive me,” Yefremov summed up.

Members of Russian 155th Marine Brigade surrender in Donbas

The New Voice of Ukraine

Members of Russian 155th Marine Brigade surrender in Donbas

February 2, 2023

Russian military 155th Brigade distinguished themselves by looting in Bucha and Irpen
Russian military 155th Brigade distinguished themselves by looting in Bucha and Irpen

Read also: Five faces of Russian killers involved in the murder and rape of Ukraine’s Bucha

Ten Russian servicemen surrendered in total, he said.

“The 155th Brigade is known from the Kyiv axis, when they were storming the city of Kyiv (in February and March 2022),” Dmytrashkivskyi said.

“They entered Irpin and Bucha. These fighters became ‘famous’ for looting and wreaking havoc. However, they were almost completely destroyed in that area.”

After being restored, this brigade reappeared on the Donetsk axis, where it was also defeated in November 2022.

“And today they have reappeared on the Vuhledar axis. Ten of their fighters have surrendered,” the spokesman said.

According to Ukrainian law enforcement agencies, more than 1,200 civilians were killed in Bucha area during the Russian occupation.

She Lost Her Childhood Home Over Taxes. Then It Erupted in Flames.

The New York Times

She Lost Her Childhood Home Over Taxes. Then It Erupted in Flames.

Tracey Tully – February 2, 2023

She lost home over taxes. Then it erupted in flames.
Eve Morawski waged an epic battle against real estate investors who bought her debt and seized her Maplewood, N.J., home, pushing her to the brink.
Owed more than $100K in unpaid taxes, fees
The Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, N.J., on Jan. 13, 2023. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)
The Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, N.J., on Jan. 13, 2023. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)

MAPLEWOOD, N.J. — It was dark by the time Eve Morawski managed to break into her home of 60 years.

The locks had been changed by sheriff’s deputies enforcing an eviction order. Movers hired by investors who took possession of the house after she fell behind on taxes had been inside most of the day, packing up photos and knickknacks her family had spent a lifetime accumulating.

She was infuriated to find the house in disarray.

Sometime before dawn, a police report shows, she located a book of matches and a knife.

“Jersey Girl Justice will hopefully prevail in the end,” Morawski wrote to friends on Facebook just before fire trucks began roaring down the pretty block in Maplewood, New Jersey.

“Aloha.”

To neighbors, the Dec. 7 fire that burst from second-floor windows and licked at the eaves of Morawski’s former home was a spectacularly sad end to an epic real estate battle that had played out publicly on social media and in state and federal courts. To her only sister, it was a tragic, avoidable coda to a 20-year family feud.

“There’s a lingering sense of: Is there something more as a community we could have done to help?” said John Guterman, a friend of Morawski who lives down the street and shared her love of animals, smoked barbecue and the New York Mets.

Well known and well liked, Morawski was a fixture in Maplewood, a commuter town 20 miles from Manhattan. Classmates recalled her as the smart kid in advanced placement classes who went on to earn an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania.

Returning home as an adult, she volunteered at area animal shelters and on the board of a preserved 18th-century house dedicated to sharing Maplewood’s history.

A longtime member of the local Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Committee, she accepted a prestigious award in May for her dedication to keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive. It was a passion fueled largely by devotion to her Polish immigrant parents, Roman Catholics who she has said were imprisoned by the Nazi and Soviet regimes during World War II. They went on to build a life in suburban New Jersey — a triumph that, to her, was embodied in the four-bedroom house they purchased at 60 Maplewood Avenue.

Privately, she was consumed by a cascade of debt and drawn-out legal battles that had pushed her to the emotional and financial brink.

Two acrimonious divorces. A three-year probate fight with her sister over their parents’ estate. A federal discrimination complaint against a former employer. Dueling lawsuits from a romance that ended badly. And, finally, bankruptcy.

Unable to afford a lawyer, she often represented herself. By her own telling, she was always the victim.

A cancer diagnosis in 2021 complicated everything.

By the time she lost the house, Morawski, 60, had accumulated more than $100,000 in unpaid taxes and fees, a burden that was further exacerbated by a state law heavily weighted toward real estate speculators. New Jersey is one of just a dozen states that permit investors to make huge profits on the debt of struggling homeowners, ultimately allowing them to foreclose on the property and keep all the profit.

“This has been an egregious travesty of justice,” she wrote in a letter to local officials shortly before the fire. “I need immediate help to stop the steal of my home.”

‘The house and legacy I need to save!’

Morawski’s childhood home on Maplewood Avenue sits three blocks from a commuter rail station and the quaint storefronts at the center of town, a pedestrian-friendly hub that residents call “the village.” Always considered a desirable community, Maplewood drew a flood of new buyers during the pandemic, and recent sales of renovated houses on the street have ranged from $755,000 to $1.6 million.

Long before the fire, the house was notable for its peeling buckskin-beige paint and tattered roof, outward signs of the difficulty Morawski had keeping up with repairs and household bills. But she was determined to hold on.

“The house and legacy I need to save!” she wrote on a GoFundMe page a friend created in 2019.

Details of Morawski’s fight to save the house are based on more than two dozen interviews with neighbors, friends, community leaders and lawyers, as well as tax documents, federal, state and county court records and her own social media posts.

After divorcing her first husband, who was in the Navy and stationed in Hawaii, she returned to Maplewood in 2000 to care for her ailing parents. She worked briefly for a management consulting firm and sometimes gave historical walking tours, but had trouble finding full-time work. An assortment of part-time jobs as a swim instructor ended with the onset of the pandemic.

But she had struggled to make ends meet since at least 2010. Desperate for money, she sold her burial plot, patched her leaky roof with tarps and, unable to buy a new water heater, took to showering at a YMCA.

“I have never said I do not owe back taxes + obscene interest,” she wrote to township leaders, “but the global pandemic impacted the intended course of action.”

She had been advised to sell the house rather than lose the accrued equity in a property that real estate sites valued at roughly $700,000 before the fire, friends, relatives and town officials said. The conversations never went far.

“She just wanted to stay in the home she grew up in,” said Andy Golebiowski, host of the Polish American Radio Program, who met Morawski on Facebook. “Those were her roots.”

Morawski spoke proudly of those roots when she accepted the Holocaust education award.

Her father, Michael (Szeliga) Morawski, earned Poland’s highest military honor, the Virtuti Militari. He had been imprisoned, she said, in concentration camps after trying to drive the Germans from the capital during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, a rebellion that lasted 63 days and led to the deaths of more than 180,000 residents.

Wanda Morawski, a nurse born in what was then the Polish city of Borszczow (it is now part of Ukraine), ran field hospitals for the Allied forces during the war after being freed from a prison in Russia, according to her 2002 obituary.

After marrying in England and moving to Brooklyn, the couple spent 10 years “saving every penny” to buy “their American dream,” Morawski wrote.

Over the next four decades, their house in Maplewood was often filled with recent immigrants of various faiths. Her mother “would order, then pick up, kosher in Brooklyn,” Morawski said at the Holocaust remembrance event. “Everyone would speak Polish and feel comfortable for a few hours as they navigated a challenging new world.”

Morawski’s parents died within five months of each other, leaving a contested estate that led to a bitter fight between the two sisters for control of the house. In the end, Morawski was instructed to pay her sister $130,000 and was awarded the house. Her sister won title to another residential property that was in their parents’ name but was told by the court that she had “no right to enter the premises” at 60 Maplewood Avenue.

Morawski’s sister said she drove by the home each day for 15 years.

Mental health concerns

Morawski was often spotted on the block walking her dog, Hana, or tending to repairs of her 1992 Dodge Dakota. She was quick with a compliment and eagerly asked about neighbors’ children.

“Always seemed to be in the same mood — pleasant,” said Kevin Photiades, who lives down the street.

“She’s a wonderful, generous, amazing person,” said Kim Brown, a friend who remained close with Morawski after they worked together in the early 1990s at a consulting firm in Linden, New Jersey.

“I couldn’t imagine, emotionally, what she was going through.”

Morawski wrote about her financial trouble on social media as foreclosure loomed in 2019 and later discussed her battle with blood cancer.

Neighbors said that they had donated to the GoFundMe campaign or lent her money directly. Friends wrote to the township’s congresswoman to ask for help and dropped off soup and meals. A member of her historical book club regularly drove her to chemotherapy.

But as the date of her eviction neared in December, close friends grew increasingly worried about her mental health. She appeared to have no future plans other than lashing out publicly against the injustice she believed had caused her to lose the house.

A federal judge assigned to Morawski’s bankruptcy case, who had attended high school with her, was “heartless and biased,” she complained to the chief judge of U.S. Bankruptcy Court. “A smart, smug jock, the epitome of a privileged white male.”

A state judge who signed the eviction order was “ridiculously obsequious to the opposing attorney, who was mocking and mean to me.”

She publicly suggested that she was considering suicide. “I expect this is the last letter I will ever write,” she said in a letter to the bankruptcy judge three days before the fire. “Too bad, because I had a LOT left to offer.”

That same day, she dropped Hana at Brown’s house. The next night, she left several cherished family mementos on the back porch of her sister’s house and emailed a niece to let her know they were there.

A friend called the police and asked officers to conduct a wellness check. They arrived at the house around dinnertime, and Morawski was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where she spent 25 hours under psychiatric evaluation, according to her lawyer and a message she posted on Facebook.

She was cleared to leave hours after the eviction order became final and the locks to the house were changed.

Tax liens as investments

Many of Morawski’s problems stemmed from the difficulty she had paying taxes on the house at 60 Maplewood, a home her parents purchased in 1962 and had long ago paid off.

New Jersey requires communities to auction off unpaid tax and sewer debts annually. The buyers — lien holders — can charge 18% interest on debt over $1,500 and are entitled to pay any future overdue taxes on the property, expanding their investment and its steep rate of return. Bidding is often aggressive, particularly for desirable properties in affluent or gentrifying towns.

After two years, if the debt is unpaid, investors can foreclose on the property.

Unlike most other states, New Jersey permits the lien holder to keep all resale profit. Former owners get back none of their accrued equity, no matter the size of the original debt.

“When people hear about it, they think, ‘This can’t be the whole story,’” said Christina Martin, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit that tracks lien sale foreclosures nationwide. “But it is the whole story. Government thinks it can take a windfall at the expense of society’s most vulnerable people and either keep it for the public purse or give it away to private investors for their enrichment.

“Either way, it’s gross,” Martin said.

Lawyers for the foundation are preparing to argue that the practice — they call it “home equity theft” — violates the Constitution in a Minnesota case that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in January to hear.

Between 2014 and 2021, in 31 of New Jersey’s largest communities, the owners of 661 residential properties lost homes after a foreclosure that resulted from tax or sewer debt, according to an analysis by the legal foundation. The owners forfeited roughly $115 million in equity, the group found.

The lien that led to the loss of Morawski’s house dated to 2016, when Effect Lake LLC, a Virginia-based company run by Peter Chinloy, a former Temple University professor, and his son, was the winning bidder at an October tax-certificate auction.

Three-quarters of Morawski’s unpaid taxes from 2015, $12,809, plus penalties, were put up for sale.

Competition was brisk. To win the right to buy the lien, Effect Lake not only agreed to charge zero-percent interest on the initial debt, but it paid Maplewood a $92,800 premium to do so — a routine practice used to outbid competitors.

Within weeks Effect Lake had also written checks for the $17,360.04 in taxes Morawski failed to pay in 2016, debt that would grow by the maximum 18% interest rate. The Chinloys’ company also paid all the taxes and sewer fees for the next three years.

Morawski would later say that Effect Lake deliberately mailed crucial legal notices too late for her to respond. “Real estate investors,” she wrote, “have aggressively and ruthlessly pursued foreclosure of my property so they can flip it.”

Her sister said she offered to pay the roughly $110,000 debt in exchange for the deed to the house — a deal Morawski found unfair and refused to accept.

In 2019, Effect Lake began foreclosure proceedings.

And on Jan. 30, 2020, after an investment of roughly $175,000, it held the deed to a home worth at least three times that much. Soon after, Morawski filed for bankruptcy, arguing that the property transfer had been fraudulent, a claim the judge rejected.

While fighting to save the house in bankruptcy court, she was also undergoing chemotherapy treatments that she said sapped her energy and left her unable to focus — conditions she believed should have led the court to slow the process down.

Chinloy, who earned a doctorate in economics from Harvard and was the director of real estate programs at Temple’s business school until 2020, has written extensively about investor real estate strategies and home foreclosures. He declined to comment for this article.

‘Over her dead body’

The day of the fire Morawski lit five matches at strategic points on the first, second and third floors of the house, according to a police report.

Then she walked to the basement, “laid down on a couch and proceeded to stab herself with a knife four times in the chest,” a detective wrote.

Neighbors watched as she was taken out on a stretcher and rushed to a hospital.

Three days later, charged with aggravated arson and burglary, she was transferred to a jail in Newark. A not-guilty plea was entered on her behalf for crimes that carried a maximum penalty of more than 10 years in prison.

Her lawyer, Lisa Lopata, a public defender, stressed that Morawski was “at a very low point,” and that she “deeply regrets what happened, especially the idea that anyone could have been put at risk.”

A prosecutor, Adam Wells, argued against her release from jail, in part because of her apparent determination to risk it all to make a defiant final point.

“She made a statement and apologized for her own cliché,” Wells told a judge on Jan. 13, “that over her dead body would anyone take the house.”

Ten hours later, after more than a month in custody, Morawski walked out of jail alone wearing borrowed, oversize clothes. She waited in the dark at a nearby New Jersey Transit bus stop and transferred at Newark Penn Station, en route to a friend’s apartment in South Orange, New Jersey, where she remains in home detention.

“These property tax lien holders have gotten away with everything,” Morawski said in an interview.

“If I start crying, I’m just afraid that I won’t stop.”

Weeks after the blaze, much of the first floor of the house appeared intact, largely untouched by flames. But out front, a haunting reminder of the saga’s explosive end remained etched into a sidewalk poured months ago.

“EVE M LIVED HERE 1962-2022,” Morawski had carved into the wet concrete. “LIVE. ALOHA.”

Republican-sponsored bill would fine teachers $5,000 for telling the truth

AZ Central – The Arizona Republic

Republican-sponsored bill would fine teachers $5,000 for telling the truth

EJ Montini, Arizona Republic – February 2, 2023

Yes, there’s a bill in the Arizona House that, if made into law, would allow confused, disgruntled, ignorant or just plain unhinged individuals to file a complaint that could lead to a teacher or professor receiving a $5,000 fine for the offense of telling the truth.

About race.

Republican-sponsored House Bill 2458 is one of many misguided pieces of legislation being pushed in state legislatures around the country to prevent “critical race theory” from being taught in schools.

In essence, it’s a way of trying to whitewash history, as if our children would be better served by ignorance than knowledge. Beyond that, the only education level at which the theory has been discussed is college or above, so banning it for lower levels is a solution for a problem that does not exist.

Republican lawmakers are playacting

Not that any of this matters. HB 2458 will not become law. The sponsor knows it. The Republicans attempting to push it through the House know it. The opposition knows it. Those members of the legislative staff who do all the work know it.

Still, it proceeds. Why?

Is CRT being taught?How the state’s new superintendent views it

Because right now, your tax dollars and mine are funding a very elaborate, very calculated, very expensive game of political make-believe being played by grown-ups in elected office who are trying to convince us their charade is real. But it is not.

It’s playacting. A fairy tale. A sham.

It is happening in Washington, D.C., in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and it is happening here in the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature.

It’s a performance that accomplishes nothing

The people behind HB 2458 know that if it makes it through the House and the Senate, both narrowly controlled by Republicans, it would not be signed by Gov. Katie Hobbs.

If they were interested in finding common ground about the issue and fashioning some form of legislation that would pass they would have contacted the governor’s office and tried to negotiate a compromise.

But bills like this are meant to promote fantasy, not serve reality.

They’re meant show constituents how vehement and committed the people they elected can be when they get into office. Even though it accomplishes … nothing.

And lawmakers here are simply mimicking their brothers and sisters in D.C.

Arizona House mimics the theater in D.C.

A while back, for example, Arizona Republican Rep. Andy Biggs tweeted, “Last night, my Republican colleagues and I defeated the Democrats’ 87,000-person IRS army. We are working quickly to reverse the Democrats’ negligent policies. This is already a very good start to the 118th Congress!”First, there is no “87,000-person IRS army.” Second, the Republicans who control the House defeated nothing.

Before becoming law, any legislation passed by the House must get through the Senate, and then be signed by the president.

Republican members of the House from all over the country are boasting to constituents about bills that will never become law. And that they know will never become law because they never bothered to find common ground about the issue and fashion some form of legislation that would pass.

Biggs also is among a group of House members who filed a resolution to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

There’s an adage about politics, show business

Again, pure show.

That we’re paying for.

Even if House members squeezed their impeachment through, Biggs knows the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict. And he knows that would never happen.

What’s going on within our divided government these days, here and in Washington, is not governing. It’s burlesque. It’s opera. It’s vaudeville.

It’s musical theater, melodrama, comedy, tragedy and farce, all rolled into one.

It’s proof of a political adage that’s been around for decades: Politics is show business for ugly people.