So it comes to this: The sheriff's office tagging vehicles that belong to the Baltimore Housing Authority, preparing them for seizure and auction.
Like some common deadbeat, an actual governmental agency gets what is essentially a visit from the repo man.
This would be a pretty astonishing turn of events, except that it's also an inevitable one for the public housing authority. For years, the agency has practiced a policy of delay, denial and, ultimately, defiance when it comes to taking responsibility for the children who were poisoned by lead while growing up in public housing units.
As The Baltimore Sun's Scott Calvert reported last week — as he's been reporting for months, in fact — the authority has been refusing to pay more than $11 million in court-ordered damages to these now-grown-up children, who have permanent brain and other health deficits as a result of their early exposure to lead, once commonly found in wall paint.
The tagging of 20 Housing Authority vehicles is just the latest attempt to squeeze at least some, though surely not all, of the money out of the agency by seizing its assets.
I just hope those vehicles don't somehow disappear before they can be auctioned, the way records of children's lead-level tests did from a state health department lab last year. (A state investigator said supervisors ordered the shredding and erasure of years' worth of records after growing resentful of lawyers continually requesting the results for lead-poisoning suits.)
Or the way money for a lead abatement program did, also last year, after a federal agency cut off funding, saying the city health department failed to fix as many homes as promised or document the work it did complete.
Meanwhile, the victims, former residents of housing units where flaking, lead-based paints created a toxic environment, face a long and uncertain road to getting compensated for the damage to their lives. You have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by some of those who have been interviewed about their lawsuits, talking about modest childhood dreams, becoming a truck driver or a nurse, which were dashed because they can't read or write above an elementary level.
While they have won judgments against the housing authority, many have yet to see a dime. Housing authority officials have said they can't afford to pay — never mind that they have spent millions hiring outside lawyers to fight the lawsuits — or that they could end up liable for as much as $800 million in damages should all the suits currently in the pipeline prove successful.
City officials have characterized the lawsuits as a money grab by lawyers with their eye on taking a third of whatever prize they can wrest from a jury or judge.
Still, that's not really the issue here. If anything, the way local government agencies have handled the lead-poisoning issue — or rather, mishandled it — hardly instills confidence that, left to their own devices, they would do right by the victims.
So, yes, these lawyers may be wearing suits rather than angel wings, and they may well be more motivated by their own bank accounts than their clients' suffering, but if you're a lead-poisoning victim, you pretty much have to take your Samaritans in whatever form you find them.
You can argue all you want about tort reform or damage caps or even the whole issue of public housing. (Yes, these kids should have opted to be born to much richer parents, who would have raised them in non-contaminated houses rather than the projects.) But that is a discussion for another day, and does nothing to address those who continue to pay the price for past problems.
The legacy of lead poisoning is a terrible one, and yet instead of resolving its lingering issues, the housing authority seems to want to avoid the issue entirely. It would be counter-productive, of course, to bankrupt the agency with lead-poisoning judgments, but surely there are ways to handle this.
As anyone who has owed money knows, you can negotiate payments — stretch them out over a period of time, for example, rather than one lump sum. I don't know if that's possible, but I also don't know that there's even any effort being expended to find any solution.
If government agencies are to be held accountable, these judgments that victims have won have to mean something. That's why we have courts and, also why we have repo men.