May 1st, 2010

Children’s groups part ways in philosophical rift

The Harvard-affiliated Judge Baker Children’s Center and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood have parted ways in a Rashomon-like saga that has left members of both organizations angry and hurt.

Judge Baker says the aggressive tactics of CCFC are beyond its core mission and put its other programs at risk. CCFC thinks Judge Baker is reluctant to stand up to corporate interests that risk the health and well being of children.

CCFC’s view

According to Alvin Poussaint, M.D., head of Judge Baker’s Media Center, under which CCFC had operated since its inception 10 years ago, the trouble began in October 2009 with a front-page New York Times story that described CCFC’s pivotal role in getting the Walt Disney Company to offer refunds on Baby Einstein videos to compensate parents who bought them under the false impression they were educational. The refund program settled a class-action lawsuit brought in 2008 by attorneys and lead plaintiffs recruited by CCFC.

Acknowledging he didn’t know everything that occurred behind closed doors, Poussaint thinks the board and leadership of Judge Baker got nervous because they were afraid of being sued by Disney. But when he asked specifically if Disney had threatened to sue, the answer was no.

Despite not being plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Poussaint and Susan Linn, Ed.D., CCFC’s co-founder and director, say they were pressured by Judge Baker management not to talk about the refund program, an affront to academic freedom to Poussaint, a full professor at Harvard Medical School and outrageous to Linn, who wanted to publicize the Disney win in her advocacy.

“I think the implications of the idea that challenging a corporation is too risky for a children’s mental health center is disturbing,” Linn says. “If we live in a society where public health professionals can’t stand up to any entity that may be harming children, we need to change that society.”

Discussions were held during this troubled period about whether the missions of the advocacy organization and the services provider remained in sync. The upshot was that in January 2010, it was determined that CCFC would move out of Boston-based Judge Baker by the end of February.

This prompted Poussaint to write a blistering letter to Judge Baker management complaining about being silenced and characterizing the split with words like “pushing out,” “expel,” “no longer welcome,” and “dismantling my program and repudiating my work.”

Further galling to Poussaint was that the center was planning to honor him with the “World of Children” award at a gala fundraiser March 13 to celebrate his lifelong commitment to children. In his Feb. 10 letter, he withdrew from accepting the award writing, “I believe that leading mental health centers should not limit their work on behalf of children solely to what transpires in laboratories and classrooms.”

“I was upset. This totally disrupted our staff emotionally,” Poussaint says. “When you consider I worked here since 1978, for them to do that to me in this fashion was very, very punitive and putting my work out of Judge Baker at the same time as giving me an award seemed hypocritical to me.”

Judge Baker Children Center’s view

For John Weisz, Ph.D., ABPP, Judge Baker Center president and CEO, the trouble began in August 2009 when Linn came to management with a question about the Disney settlement, which they didn’t know anything about. But once officials realized the center was involved, they didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize the settlement for the plaintiffs. Weisz says they went so far as to hire an independent attorney to examine the situation and try to figure out what could and could not be said to keep from “blowing up the agreement and all the benefits.”

“This settlement agreement would be null and void if confidentiality was not honored and it named CCFC, which was a program of Judge Baker. So, we’re legally responsible,” Weisz says.

The Disney action took Judge Baker “into realms we hadn’t been before,” Weisz says. Yet, CCFC has a track record against big business and in 2007, successfully sued Kellogg’s to change its marketing. Weisz says the distinction was that CCFC had partnered with the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the vice president of Judge Baker had approved. In the Disney case, CCFC was acting on its own.

In response to Poussaint’s letter, Weisz and Kathryn Cade, trustee chairman, wrote to Judge Baker supporters Feb. 16 canceling the gala. They praised CCFC and its successes, but wrote that Judge Baker was no longer in a position to assume the “costs and risks associated with aggressive advocacy,” particularly since such advocacy is not core to its mission of research, training, special education and evidence-based services.

The letter said that the timing to separate CCFC before the gala was to make its transition to independence “clear and public” to avoid any misunderstanding by donors.

“We never intended it [the separation] to be negative,” Weisz says. “We saw it as a logical liberation to have them operate as they see best.”

Weisz says that CCFC was the only program at Judge Baker that refused to submit to oversight, a refusal that could leave the whole organization open to liability. Yet he understands that “CCFC hasn’t accomplished what they have with people telling them what to do or say. It seemed a wonderful solution to support them in becoming independent without constraints from trustees,” Weisz adds.

Poussaint says Judge Baker refused CCFC’s offer to form its own non-profit to assume any future liability while remaining housed at the center and paying rent.

Aftermath

When Judge Baker canceled the gala, it lost $80,000 in pre-paid fees plus untold thousands in ticket sales and sponsorships. It received some hate mail in response to publicity.

“This incident and the publicity Susan and Alvin have created around it I think were designed to hurt us, and it has,” Weisz says. Nevertheless, he wishes them success.

“We didn’t have to give back the CCFC name and donor list,” Weisz says. “We want to promote their mission.”

Like any entity, Judge Baker can’t be all things to all people. If psychologists practice outside their area of expertise, they leave themselves open to all sorts of problems, Weisz says.

“We don’t have expertise building lawsuits. It goes beyond our core mission and 98 percent of what we do,” Weisz says. “Ensuring a better future for our clients and families, that’s where our energies should lie. CCFC independently organizing and launching broadsides and making claims about the harm being caused by the actions of organizations may be meritorious and has done a lot of good, but it stretches beyond our specialty.”

Poussaint is not sure whether Judge Baker will remain his base for his extensive consulting, writing and advocacy. He is still a close adviser to CCFC, whose two staffers have relocated to Third Sector New England, a non-profit incubator in Boston.

Poussaint suggests that non-profit boards should reflect the makeup of their missions and communities rather than weighted with businesspeople and fundraisers who are overly concerned about liability. It was psychiatrists on the board of Judge Baker, recognizing the threat of modern media to children, who asked him to create the Media Center in 1994.

“If we helped a couple million children internationally not to be stuck in front of a baby video at age four or six months, considered an enormous problem and one of the major factors in the obesity epidemic, you have to put that up against the Judge Baker Center that does clinical work and provides services like thousands of other children’s agencies in this country.”

By Nan Shnitzler

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