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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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The end of playground camp
MSCR program at city parks comes to screeching halt
Jacobson with her kids: 'This is really a neighborhood tragedy.'
Jacobson with her kids: 'This is really a neighborhood tragedy.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

For Marie Jacobson, it was the essence of summer. When she was a little girl in Madison, the program was there for her. It's been around for her kids too. For a couple of months each summer, they could go to their neighborhood park for loosely structured play activities, like baseball and checkers and sidewalk chalk art.

"It's just a lovely way to spend a summer morning," says Jacobson, whose two children have attended the program at Elmside Circle Park. Last year, it served first- through fifth-graders in 11 neighborhood parks.

But Madison School & Community Recreation, which runs the program, is doing away with it this year.

"I'm just livid about this," says Jacobson, who grew up on Madison's north side and attended the program at Sherman school. "This is really a neighborhood tragedy."

MSCR is urging past playground-camp participants to enroll in its day camps at Muir Elementary and Penn Park or art camps in the Hoyt Building and Kennedy Elementary.

But instead of being half-day, drop-in programs with a $25 per-summer fee, these alternatives run all day and cost up to $128 per week. (The Penn Park program remains inexpensive, at just $30 per summer.) Instead of being outdoors in neighborhood parks, these programs often take place inside. And kids at Elmside would be bused each day to Kennedy from Lowell Elementary.

For Catherine Eagle, whose kids also attended the playground program at Elmside, that's not an attractive alternative. "I'm not interested, and my kids are not interested, in any kind of formal program, any kind of indoor program, or driving anywhere," says Eagle. She wants them to stay in the neighborhood, play outside and come home for lunch.

In a letter to MSCR, one of several received, Eagle asks, "In these days of too much organization of our kids' time, too much time spent in cars and too much structured play, why is a wonderful organization like MSCR not embracing this simple playground program?"

Sharon Neylon, MSCR outreach manager, says attendance at the playground programs "has gone down drastically." Last year, just 244 children were enrolled, well below the average of 464 from the previous five years. And "sporadic" attendance has made staffing difficult.

MSCR also heard from parents who wanted their kids to attend daylong programs, like "regular child care," says Neylon. "We basically took a look at all the needs we've gotten from people. How do we meet these needs with the amount of money, and the number of staff, that MSCR has?"

But axing the playground program has stirred discontent. More than 50 parents signed a petition circulated by Eagle and her kids. "Our children have enjoyed the program immensely and were looking forward to another wonderful summer of fun, games, crafts and fellowship," it says. "Please think of the children before you make this discontinuation permanent."

Neylon allows that there is one way the program could be restored, at select sites: If a business or group would agree to sponsor it. The annual cost would be about $4,000 per site.

Will law, like prayer, fail girl?

A Wisconsin case that's shocking the conscience of the nation could revive a debate over a peculiar state law. Last week in Weston, an 11-year-old girl (note: This is a correction. Isthmus originally reported the girl was 14) died from a treatable form of diabetes while her parents prayed over her rather than seek medical help. The case is now being reviewed for possible charges, but authorities may find that their hands are tied.

State statute 948.03(6), against failing to act to protect children from bodily harm, contains an exemption for what it terms "treatment through prayer." This means, according to Shawn Francis Peters, a UW-Madison instructor of writing and U.S. history, that "if you treat a child by religious means, you're not going to be prosecuted."

Peters is the author of When Prayer Fails, a new book about faith-based medical negligence involving children. He suspects Wisconsin's statute owes to the efforts of politically connected Christian Scientists, as in other states with such laws (some of which have been repealed).

The statute drew some attention in 2003, when a 2-year-old autistic child in Milwaukee was crushed to death during an attempted exorcism. The practitioner was convicted, albeit of a lesser offense than what some felt was appropriate. Afterward, Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann urged state lawmakers to remove this exemption, lest it lead to "mischief." Wisconsin's do-little Legislature has not done so.

Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard can't recall a local case where a child has died for want of medical attention, but confirms that the standard for prosecuting would be extremely high.

"In the criminal child-neglect area, we look for evidence of criminal thinking," he says. Thus, if a caretaker purportedly eschewed treatment for religious reasons, "we would certainly ask police to be alert to any facts suggesting that religion was being used only as an after-the-fact excuse or ruse."

But, Blanchard continues, if "the religious belief appeared genuine, and there were no other signs of abuse or neglect, it might be difficult for us to say a case had merit as a criminal child-neglect prosecution."

Cop accuser: He's lying

Isthmus has obtained a letter written by a woman who purports to have been raped in 2006 by a Madison police officer (Watchdog, 3/21/08).

The city of Madison agreed to release the letter, which the woman had sent to the police chief, mayor and others, but first gave the officer an opportunity to sue to block its release. The officer did not object, and his attorney, Bruce Ehlke, gave the letter to Isthmus ahead of the timeframe prescribed in the state's open records law.

The assault allegedly happened at a hotel in Schaumberg, Ill., where officers were attending a wedding. Madison police recently concluded an internal investigation, which found that the charges were "not sustained." Meantime, the woman asked authorities in Schaumberg to conduct a criminal probe, now under way.

In her letter (see a PDF copy in the related downloads at top right), the woman accuses the officer of raping her and then lying about it. She expresses concern about his continued work as a cop: "[H]e is not an honest or a moral individual and certainly not someone who should be working in a professional capacity with anyone who has been the victim of a sexual assault."

She notes that he apparently won't be jailed or disciplined, but recommends he receive additional training.

Ehlke questions why the woman took several months to report the incident and why her letter seeks such modest redress: "There seems to be a certain disconnect there." He says his client has welcomed both the internal and criminal probe.

The woman responds that delays in reporting sexual assaults are common. She asked for training because she didn't think more was possible. And she says the officer only requested an investigation when the allegations began surfacing through other channels. (Ehlke agrees, but says this is when the officer first learned of them.)

"He can say whatever he wants," the woman says. "He's knows what happened, and I know what happened. I'm telling the truth, and he's not."

Just a thought

Alternative name for The Capital Times' new weekly arts tabloid, 77 Square, one that reflects its underlying goal: 77 Fewer People on the Payroll.

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