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The Nose

Friends in High Places

Posted 10/31/2001

Still smarting from lawsuits charging it with endangering lead-paint-study subjects and a brutal ruling by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals that strongly suggested the institute had put children in harm's way and called for curbs on its research, the Kennedy Krieger Institute recently agreed to participate in a series of community meetings to mend its much-battered public image. But now the Nose hears the Johns Hopkins-run institute may be backing off the citizen-outreach offensive--coincidentally, amid increasing signals that Annapolis has Kennedy Krieger's back.

Lynn Pinder, a regional coordinator for the New York-based Northeast Environmental Justice Network, says Kennedy Krieger president Dr. Gary Goldstein's office called her office Oct. 25 to cancel a planned get-together with her organization. Only three days earlier, Pinder and fellow activist Ruth Ann Norton had praised Goldstein and his colleagues at a City Council hearing for agreeing to meet with community-based lead-paint groups. "Basically," Pinder says of the abortive gathering, "they just didn't see the need."

Goldstein didn't return the Nose's calls seeking a reason for the cancellation, but Pinder notes that it coincided with a trip to Annapolis for a hearing at which Goldstein and other Hopkins bigwigs lobbied state legislators who are weighing laws to strengthen legal protections for medical-research institutions. In August the Court of Special Appeals ruled that lawsuits alleging that mid-'90s Kennedy Krieger studies in which families were moved into homes in various states of lead abatement contributed to children's lead poisoning (Mobtown Beat, Aug. 8; The Nose, Sept. 12), fueling worry among lawmakers that liability questions could throw a wrench into Hopkins' wide-ranging and often groundbreaking work. "I don't want there to be a chilling effect on research . . . because of that court ruling," Del. John Hurson (D-Montgomery County) told The Washington Post.

Kennedy Krieger was already getting similar love back home. At the hearing of the City Council's Housing, Health and Environment Committee on Oct. 22 (the second day of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week), council member John Cain, whose 1st District includes Kennedy Krieger and Hopkins hospital, pronounced that he'd brook "no grandstanding," "no outbursts," and no discussion of the lawsuits. (Cain's outburst prompted a what's-with-you look from council President Sheila Dixon, who later in the hearing said that she didn't see the need "for such stringent rules.")

Friendliness thus enforced, Goldstein took the floor, praising the unquestionably praiseworthy achievements of Kennedy Krieger lead-research pioneer Dr. J. Julian Chisolm Jr. (who died in June) and defending the studies in question as a continuation of the institute's goal to "reduce the amount of lead poisoning by getting at the source." City health officials followed with their own rosy news, proudly proclaiming that in the past two years the number of Baltimore rental properties known to contain lead has been reduced from 1,000 to 550. And all those present seemed to embrace a call by Norton, head of the city-based Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, for more dialogue between Hopkins and the community on lead issues and research. (Afterward Norton told the Nose her group is "impressed" that Goldstein has agreed to appear at meetings it has arranged for mid-November, and as of Oct. 30, when last we spoke to her, the meeting was still on.)

Pinder, who also attended the Annapolis hearing, says she had anticipated getting her organization together with Goldstein since early October, when she had a private meeting with the Kennedy Krieger chief in her West Baltimore office. She says she only agreed to the tête-à-tête "on the condition that we would have a follow-up [group] meeting because I can't speak for everybody," and she views the recent turn of events with alarm.

"What's scary isn't so much that [Kennedy Krieger] is trying to save their image," she says. "The scary part is that they have so much power that people in the community just don't have."

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