Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gov. Strickland's Ban on Utility Shutoffs Too Late for One Toledo Boy

FirstEnergyCorp, Toledo Edison, shut off the power to his house and, for nearly two weeks, he lived in his cold house, heated by only a small kerosene heater. So did his 6 brothers and sisters and grandmother. They had the heater in the small dining room, closed off by some bed sheets. The smell of kerosene was ghastly, but the room was warmer than the cold house. At bedtime, he lay in his cold, unheated bedroom.

His mother argued with Toledo Edison that she did not owe the $600 electric bill, that it was from the previous tenant who left town with many unpaid bills. Toledo Edison said, 'No, it is your bill.' The mother said to my wife, "I've only been in the house for a month and couldn't have a $600 electric bill." Edison shut it off. The house went dark and colder with each passing day.

I met Elijah at the Padua Center, the former now-closed St. Anthony Church's rectory. The Diocese of Toledo opened it as a neighborhood resource. Sr. Virginia Welsh operates the facility which offers free bread and rolls and coffee to the neighborhood. Elijah's two younger brothers came over for tutoring and told Sister that they were cold at home. Sr. Virginia then investigated and went to the home and found the family cold and in the dark. The mother told the story to her.

Elijah is severely autistic and does not speak and has violent outbursts. He's 14 and strong. He and his mother, grandmother and the youngest children were at the Padua Center warming up and eating pizza that Sister had made for them. I was introduced and when I shook the boy's hand it was literally like a corpse hand; I never felt colder skin than his. He was restless and paced back and forth and only sat down when his mother pulled him next to her. His eyes were wild and darted back and forth. Clearly he was out of his element and, as such, is very distressing to an autistic child.

This was on a Friday morning, the 8th day of no power. The mother told us that she had gathered the $600 from relatives and friends and was going to pay the bill that afternoon. We provided electric camping lanterns and flashlights so that the family would not continue to use candles to light the house at night. The tragic death of 3 children and their mother a few days earlier prompted our action.

For the whole story click [here] to read my earlier post. Power, however, was not restored until the afternoon on Tuesday, four days later. Several phone calls to Toledo Edison by my wife and I were met with belligerence, incompetence and plain ignorance. When the power finally was restored, the furnace ran and ran, trying to heat the house whose temperature had fallen into the 40's. We thought the family's long nightmare was at last over.

The phone call on Thursday ended our happiness. Elijah was in St. Vincent Hospital's ICU with burns on his neck, arms, and chest. He had been so thoroughly chilled literally to the bone, that he pressed himself up against the oven in the kitchen and his clothes caught fire. His burning shirt stuck to his skin as he screamed in pain. I cannot imagine what went through a boy's mind at that time, especially a severely autistic boy.

He lay in the ICU for days, waiting for his skin-graft operation. His mother never left his side; she slept by his side and would quiet him when he would become agitated. He pulled out his IV's and bandages several times and cried quite a bit, his mother tells us.

Tomorrow Elijah goes home, his mother reported. It will be good for him to get back to familiar surroundings and it will be good for his mother to be able to sleep, once again, in her own bed. What a nightmare for this family. Oh, and by the way, Elijah's mother told my wife that Toledo Edison called her at the hospital and told her that they made a mistake! She did not owe $600, it was the bill of the previous owner. They would credit her for the money.

Can you imagine that? An error. An error by Toledo Edison that caused three weeks of pain and agony for a poor, inner-city family.

I applaud Governor Strickland's decision to stand for families like Elijah's and ban utility shut-offs during the winter. At least other Ohio families will not have to suffer like this one.

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