Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Class and Poise

I had lunch with a good friend recently. We have been friends for over fifteen years. We've worked together and we've played together, and suffice it to say we've had our share of laughs over the years. I won't go into great detail, but I will say that we used to bowl together, and beer was our dinner on those nights. We also ran up a close-to-three-digit bar tab, just the two of us, for my birthday, and a sombrero was nearly killed that evening. Ah, good times.

During our lunch, she told me that she was proud of the work I'm doing, and that I show class and poise in my interviews. I was touched and flattered, and then we both burst out laughing, because we both knew the real me, the one who drops her bowling ball, trips over sidewalk cracks, and is usually a klutz, even before alcohol is imbibed. I had to tell her that while I was in Reno, as I was leaving the podium after my presentation, I walked out of my shoe and almost fell on my face. In front of several big-wigs, of course. But that's how I roll, usually right down to the floor.

Remember when I told you about the workers' comp amendments I was working on? Well, I got a call last week, asking me to offer testimony before the Senate Executive Committee hearing held today. Then this morning, I got a phone call asking me if the provision could be called The Uhl Act. Of course I agreed, and then I hung up and cried.

As I was getting ready, I flipped on the TV and caught the last few minutees of The Birdcage - Robin Williams, Gene Hackman and drag queens. Get it on Netflix if you haven't seen it. Anyway, at the end, they all dance to We Are Family, and of course, that made me cry again, but it was a happy cry. I took that as a sign that my girls were with me, just like they were last year.

After getting to Springfield and through security without incident (shocking, I know, given my brush with airport jail), I met with the senator, and we headed up to the senate chambers. He explained that when our bill was called for discussion, we would sit at a table up at the front of the room, in full view of the spectators and senators, and after he introduced the bill, he told me I could say "whatever I wanted." Oh sir, if only I could, if only. But I decided to be a lady and not say something that would end in a trip to Legislative Jail. Look at me, with the class and poise.

Our bill is called, and we stand up and walk up to the aforementioned table. Fortunately, it's a short walk because as I sit down, my pants feel a bit loose, as if I have might lost a few pounds in the last few minutes, but no, nothing that amazing, my damn suit pants have come unzipped. I mentally slap myself upside the head, try like hell not to laugh, and send up a prayer of thanks that I didn't split the backside of my pants and that I can give the testimony sitting down. Class and poise - that's me all over.

After the bill was introduced and I gave my testimony, the amendment passed unanimously, and I managed to stand up, discreetly insure that my jacket covered my zipper, and exit the chambers without anyone pointing and laughing at me, without falling off my shoes, and without any other articles of clothing coming undone - a major victory.

I ducked into the ladies room and put myself back together, giggling to myself and remembering my friend's comment about class and poise, and knew I'd have to email her when I got home and share my stupidity. Funny thing - I had an email from her waiting for me. It's like she knew I'd have a story for her.

Here is the story in our local paper, without the wardrobe malfunction.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Luck O'The Irish

On this gorgeous St. Paddy's Day (sunny with a high of 75 today!), I consider myself very lucky in so many ways.

I get to wake up my little red-headed Irish girl in the mornings, and then instead of rushing off to beat the traffic, I can make her a yummy hot breakfast and enjoy it with her.

I am able to travel to law enforcement departments to tell them about Jessica and Kelli in hopes of saving lives in the future. Although Maddy wasn't able to go to Nevada with us, she did get to go to a conference that was held closer to home. We had actually stayed at that hotel before when Kelli did cheerleading competitions, and Maddy loved the pool.

But these are my three greatest lucky charms of all.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Making Change

Last September, the trooper who killed Jessica and Kelli decided that he would file for workers' compensation. Apparently the Illinois workers' comp laws did not specifically preclude a person from collecting compensation even if the injuries received were caused by negligence on the part of the injured person. Isn't that a kick in the head?

I decided to call bullshnicky on that, and after doing a little digging on the State's website, I discovered that my local senator, William Haine, was on a special commission to reform the workers' compensation laws. I emailed him, told him who I was and why I was taking this personally, and asked him to amend the laws so that those who cause their own injuries not be allowed to collect benefits.

In the meantime, our local newspaper began reporting about potentially fraudulent workers' compensation filings. Apparently 389 employees at a local prison, 230 of which were guards, were all claiming injuries stemming from "repetitive trauma," and the State has paid over $10 million dollars on these claims. No wonder this State is in financial turmoil - apparently it never occurred to anyone to say "hmm, perhaps we should fix the problem causing this 'repetitive trauma.'"

Thankfully the paper was investigating the workers' comp process, because otherwise we would have never known that the trooper's hearing, (which is public, by the way) had been secretly rescheduled. Of course, by the time I was notified of the date and time, it was too late for me to attend, or anyone from the public.

During the investigation by the reporters, numerous emails sent by the arbitrator in charge of the trooper's case were discovered. The arbitrator was communicating with the trooper's attorney to move the trooper's hearing to a "special setting and an unknown place and time!" and then emailed her court reporter to say the hearing would be held "on the sly, with no press." The arbitrator also emailed her supervisor and said that "the media frenzy" was an "overwhelming thought" and had no idea "this guy's worker's comp case would draw such attention." Oh really? Let me tell you about "media frenzy" and "overwhelming" attention.

After I read that article, I again emailed Sen. Haine, and also emailed the Chairman of the Workers' Comp Commission, and included the link to the article. I also wrote a letter to my local representative, Dwight Kay, who was spearheading a resolution calling for a full forensic audit of the workers' compensation division.

My letter to Rep. Kay read, in part:

"I have also written to Chairman Mitch Weisz to express my extreme displeasure in the way that Arbitrator Teague has handled this case, specifically hiding the hearing from the public. If she was uncomfortable with the case and the "media frenzy", she should have recused herself instead of holding a hearing "on the sly." The family of Jessica and Kelli Uhl did not have a choice to avoid the "media frenzy" and all court hearings involving the civil and criminal matters were available to the public and to the media. I further implored him to take the necessary steps to ensure that this does not happen in the future, and that disciplinary action be taken against Arbitrator Teague...As a taxpayer of the State of Illinois as well as someone who has been personally affected by the actions of the IWCC employees, I hope that you are
successful in overhauling this system."

Chairman Weisz responded to me within 24 hours and assured me his office was investigating the claims. Sen. Haine's office thanked me for the article and told me they had passed along the information to the senator.

Ultimately the trooper's workers' comp claim was denied by the arbitrator, coincidentally on the same day that she was placed on administrative leave. The trooper has the option to appeal the ruling within 30 days, but so far we haven't heard if he has done so. The deadline is March 21.

Earlier this week, I was thinking that I hadn't heard anything further from the senator or representative, so I was going to follow up. Imagine my surprise when I received a phone call from Rep. Kay today letting me know that his resolution calling for an audit was being presented to the Illinois legislature today. He was disappointed that due to the late notice I would be unable to attend the hearing. He was hoping it would be heard next week, but it was moved up at the last minute. He did ask if he could read my letter into the record during the hearing, and I said "uh, hell yeah!" (Not really but my "of course" was said in a "hell yeah!" tone). He also stated that he hoped to begin work soon to amend the law, and he agreed with me that negligence should not be compensated, and assured me that I would have notice so that I could attend that hearing. The resolution passed 111-0.

Although I wasn't present for the hearing today, I hope to be when the laws are amended, and I can witness another positive result from my daughters' deaths.

Here is a list of all the articles the Belleville paper has written on this investigation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

I had a conversation with Maddy just before her birthday in January. She was talking about how she would be turning 12 the following week, and I was teasing her and said now that she was getting older, she needed to start looking for a job. Then she said to me, “Kelli was 13 when she died, and I’ll be 13 in a year.” I said, “Yes, that’s true” and wondered where she was going with this. “And Jessica was 18, and was in college to do that PR thing.” “That’s right,” and then I said nothing more, waiting for her to take the lead.

After a few beats of silence, she stated “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. Jessica knew what she wanted to do, and Kelli wanted to be a vet. I don’t know.” I said, “Mad, there’s no deadline. What you want to do now may not be what you want to do later. Who knows if Kelli would still want to be a vet.” We talked a little more about it, then I said “I mean, look at me, I’m 42 years old and I still don’t know what I want to do.” “But you have a job,” she said, and I replied “Yes, I have a job, but that pays the bills and buys us groceries. It’s not what I want to do with my life.” Then she asked, “What do you want to do?” and I said, “I don’t know. I used to want to be a lawyer so I went to work for them. Then I had babies and stayed home for a while, but I had to go back to work, and I just never got the time to go back to school.”

She thought for a bit, then she said “Mom, I think when you can quit your job, you should do more of that speaking thing that you do with the police. I think it’s important that they hear you, and you’re good at it. That’s what you should do.” Taken aback, I said “you think?” She replied, “Yes, I do. And if you quit soon you can stay home with me this summer, and I can go with you when you talk to them.”

At that moment I was schooled by an 11-almost-12-year-old. She was right – I miss out on a lot of time with her because I have to work, and now more than ever I am so appreciative of the time I have with my family. I also love speaking to the police cadets and field officers because I feel that it is important for them to hear about Jessica and Kelli, and it makes me feel like I’m doing what I wanted to do all along – make sure they aren’t forgotten and make sure that their deaths weren’t in vain and that I hopefully change an officer’s mind about how they drive and perhaps save a life because of that change in perception.

Maddy went with me last week to the Southwestern Illinois Criminal Justice Summit and saw me give my presentation to over 250 officers, my largest audience to date. Then she stood next to me as dozens of officers came up to us to express their condolences and to tell me thank you for sharing my story with them. I exchanged contact info with several of them and will be speaking to their departments as well. I thought it was important that Maddy see exactly what I did, and also to see that the majority of the police officers are not like the one bad example she’s had to hear about for three years.

On the way home, I said “thank you for going with me.” She said “thanks for taking me, I learned a lot. I cried a little but I don’t know if it was because of what you said or because I was thinking about them while you were talking. But I liked what you said.” “So this is what you think I should do with myself,” I asked her and she said “yep, I do.”

So, at the ripe old age of 42-almost-43, I know what I want to do with my life. This Friday is my last day of work, and then I will be home with Maddy, and also be available to speak to police departments about Jessica and Kelli. I have four sessions lined up already and am working on scheduling more. Maddy and I also have made a list of things to do this summer.

I am thankful that I have the opportunity to do this, and I am also very aware that it comes at a high price. However, I think Jessica and Kelli would be proud of me and the work that I do in their honor. At least I hope so. I know Maddy is.