Cutting Where It Hurts

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

As the parent of a child who was severely disabled and mentally retarded, I ran up against legal and political issues similar to those faced by families cited in the Aug. 19 Metro article "Law May Force Some Working Poor Back to the Support of Welfare Rolls." As the director of an early-childhood education program that serves low-income families, I see our families being caught in this cruel vise.

My son Lee was born with a genetic anomaly that left him with medical and developmental challenges. He grew more and more fragile as he got older, despite his doctors' enormous efforts. At age 9 he was having near-constant seizures. Lee was in the emergency room more days than not. His twin brother and younger sister were not getting the care they needed, and our family was emotionally and financially devastated.

I advocated for Lee and other children like him before state officials, to no avail. One social worker told me I could get help if I abandoned or abused Lee but warned that my other children might be removed from our home. A school employee suggested we move to a different state. The governor's office would not help us.

We finally turned to Lee's grandparents in Tennessee, who took custody of him; the state placed him in a wonderful group home for medically fragile children. He died there when he was 14, without any of his family present. To this day I am not sure which was harder: giving up custody of my son or learning that he died before I was able to hold him one more time and say goodbye.

Now, as director of the Falls Church-McLean Children's Center, I see our low-income working families caught in a similar trap between law and politics. New federal laws led Virginia legislators to take money from the child-care assistance program to cover a mandated increase in welfare. Yet those affected are the families who are moving out of the welfare program, and they need child care so they can work.

Some say that most of these families are immigrants who are taking taxpayers' money. But the fact is that most are citizens, taxpayers themselves, working hard to improve the lives of their children. This is not the way to resolve the standoff on immigration. Additionally, for every dollar spent on high-quality early-childhood education, $17 is saved in the costs of remediation, special education and English classes, and incarceration.

State delegates are angry that the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors asked Gov. Timothy M. Kaine for funding to replace some of the $13 million lost to the welfare program. The delegates have rejected the supervisors' bid for state funds. The supervisors fear that if they replace some of the money this year, the state will continue to funnel money to other programs in the future, leaving counties to make up the gap.

I just see the faces of children who may disappear from our center in October.

What will I say to parents when they ask me to keep caring for and educating their children even though they will no longer get tuition assistance? I will not be able to find funds to help each of these families. So will I have to close classrooms and fire teachers, some of whom have worked with us for five, 10, 20, even 35 years? Will they go on welfare, too?

It is clear to me the Board of Supervisors understands the economic and human impact of removing families from the child-care assistance program. But will they be able to make up the funding taken away by federal laws and state decisions? I doubt it. Virginia should be helping its most vulnerable citizens: those living in poverty, those with mental illness or mental retardation, those who are our youngest and are our future. But I doubt that will happen, too.

-- Elizabeth Page

Falls Church

The writer is executive director of the Falls Church-McLean Children's Center. Her e-mail address isfcmlcc@aol.com.


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