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Children of Welfare Parents Feel Reform's Help, Hurt

spacer Mother plays with daughter By Michele McDonald for The Washington Post
"I don't have regrets, because here I am, bettering myself," says Shannon Montalvo, here playing with daughter Meryaa while her other daughter, Gabriella, sleeps behind her.

By Judith Havemann and
Barbara Vobejda

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 27, 1997;
Page A01

LAWRENCE, Mass.—The atmosphere is sizzling in Room 310 at the Henry K. Oliver School, where the ancient boiler is overheating and the eighth-grade social studies class is fired up. The topic is welfare reform.

"Why should some parents go to work while others sit home not working?" asked 13-year-old Maribel Lopez. "Some of them could get a job, but they don't. They just wait for the check."

The students thrust their hands in the air wildly, competing for attention. "I don't agree, in a kinda way," said Ivette Santana, also 13. "In my house, there are six children." Her family's food stamps have been cut from $500 every month to about $100 as a result of reform efforts. "It's Christmas. My sister is not giving my mother money. Some people are just sitting down . . . but for others . . . a lot of people have diseases, they're sick. They can't work."

"I agree with Ivette," said Malvin Ayala, chiming in from the back of the room. "Some people don't speak English and don't have the opportunity to study and can't find jobs."

The children in this depressed mill town in northern Massachusetts know a lot about welfare. Half of them live in families on public assistance, either food stamps or cash welfare. And with unprecedented changes taking place in the law, they represent a generation that could be altered forever by the success or failure of that effort.

These children and others like them across the country were at the core of the debate a year ago, when federal lawmakers threw out the nation's 60-year-old welfare system. They replaced it with a law that, for the first time, requires beneficiaries to work and limits the time any family can receive aid.

The law was passed in the name of children. Its authors were driven by a determination to break the cycle of poverty so that a new generation would grow up with a strong work ethic and aware that they could not rely solely on the government. Opponents were equally adamant about protecting the young, defending the old system because it maintained a safety net for children no matter how their parents behaved.

Already in Massachusetts, where The Washington Post has been chronicling welfare changes that began a year before the federal reforms, the effect on children has been tangible and personal.

Taken together, the experiences of hundreds of children here add up to this: New welfare rules have exacerbated the problems of families whose lives were already chaotic. And they have magnified the strengths of those who were strongly motivated and able to take advantage of new programs. For this group with the psychological stamina to push themselves, the new system has provided job training, child care and other resources.

Welfare caseloads in Lawrence are down 19.6 percent since 1995 and 1,200 recipients in the city have found jobs.

At the Oliver school, attendance is up from an average of 88 percent to 93 percent since welfare reform went into effect, an improvement administrators link to a new regulation that docks a parent's welfare benefits if children are frequently absent.

Montalvo stares at phone bill By Michele McDonald for The Washington Post
spacer
Montalvo looks at the first phone bill for her apartment. It is over $100. Daughter Gabriella is beside her.

School officials also say discipline problems have eased because so many welfare parents are volunteering in the buildings to fulfill state requirements that they either find jobs or do community service. And while half of the school's children moved away each year in the past, that has dropped to one-fifth, administrators say, because families either are avoiding the state's welfare requirements or are now tied to jobs here.

"In two years, I'll have a good job," said 19-year-old Shannon Montalvo, who has taken advantage of one of welfare reform's innovations, a teen living program that provides a stable home, high school education and training.

Montalvo, who has two daughters under the age of 2, dropped out of the eighth grade and lived in a string of homes before moving into the spacious two-bedroom apartment she now shares with another teenage mother and her three children.

"I was real rebellious," she said. "But I don't have regrets because here I am, bettering myself."

But the same regulations that are pushing some families toward self-sufficiency are causing other more troubled families to unravel.

Officials at a domestic violence program in Lawrence say they received 416 calls for help in a three-month period this year, more than double the 1996 figure. They said they believe women are returning with their children to battering husbands and boyfriends because welfare reform is making new demands on them and the relatives they might have turned to in the past.

Child protection officials in Lawrence say families on the verge of losing their children because of abuse and neglect are worse off, in part because their already dysfunctional lives must now absorb the new shock of working their way off welfare. And confirmed reports of child abuse and neglect in the city rose from 795 in 1995 to 968 last year.

Putting people to work is a challenge in Lawrence, where the unemployment rate, at 8.3 percent, is more than twice the statewide figure. Some welfare recipients have found jobs in a local textile mill. The bulk have gone to work for low wages, as nurse's aides, in restaurants, supermarkets and light manufacturing.

Three-quarters of the welfare population here is Hispanic, many from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and more than 60 percent do not have high school diplomas. They have come here most often to be near relatives and live jammed into peeling wooden buildings converted into irregular apartments on postage-stamp lots.

The teenagers at the Oliver school know only the rough outlines of the complex new law. But they are quite certain of its effect on those around them.

"I know somebody, but I'm not gonna say the name," said Teresita Suarez, a petite teenager whose jet-black hair is pinned carefully in place. "My parents, they work," she adds quickly, anxious to convey to her classmates that her family is motivated. The person she is thinking of also works, but still received food stamps worth $300 a month.

"Her rent was $150. She was never home, she would always go shopping," Teresita said. But she lost her food stamps, a common experience in this community where many adults are subject to the food stamp cutoff for legal but unnaturalized immigrants. "Now, she have to work two jobs. She only sleeps three hours. Now she has no phone, no cable."

Maribel knows a lady who had to return to Puerto Rico because she didn't have enough money for rent and food when her benefits were cut.

And what about the kids? Malvin Ayala asks confidently. "If the parents aren't home" because they're forced to work, he said, "the children can't talk to them. They go to the streets. They get in trouble on the streets . . . starting fires. . . . It's not their fault."

'Helping My Mother'

Suddenly, after 17 years of raising babies and taking care of a home, Yesenia Perez's mother has been catapulted into the public world of work. As Yesenia picks her way through the litter on her way to school every morning, welfare reform is sending her mother off in another direction – for job training. In all her 12 years, Yesenia has never seen her mother go to school before, rarely heard her work on her English, and not once known her to practice office skills. Yesenia's mother has not yet landed a job, which means for now there is no more money coming in than there ever was. But Yesenia glows with happiness. She stands up awkwardly from homework she has propped on the couch cushions that serve as her desk in this barren apartment. She brushes off her blue and white school uniform, front and sides. Welfare reform, she says after a moment of proud hesitation, "is helping my mother."

For Yesenia's mother, Elizabeth Perez, the new welfare rules have ignited her latent abilities and fierce commitment to building a better life for her children. When she arrived in Lawrence from Puerto Rico in 1995, fleeing an abusive husband, she turned to welfare for help. But soon Massachusetts caseworkers called her in and told her that her benefits would run out in two years and she should prepare to go to work. They offered her special courses to obtain a high school diploma, job training programs and free day care. Elizabeth Perez took advantage of it all.

Yesenia, poised on the edge of adolescence, once had little reason for pride in her family's bleak circumstances. Now she sees her mother as smart and competent, somebody successful. Once battered and poorly educated, Elizabeth Perez has recently obtained her high school equivalency diploma. She now speaks fluent English, and will graduate in February from a state program designed to train welfare recipients in office skills.

Yesenia looks up from her social studies unit on Mexico. The other day at school, she volunteers shyly, she was talking with a friend about Christmas. Her friend was bragging a little about what her mother was going to give her for Christmas and about her father's job.

Yesenia told her friend that she too would be getting presents this year. "It made me feel good" to have something to say back, Yesenia said later. "I told her that my mother is going to get a job just like her dad." Because of welfare reform, she said, "my mother is going to be a secretary."

Day Care at Night

For some children, the new law has registered in very concrete ways.

Ten-year-old Evelyn Santiago and her brother, Elvin, 9, have been dropped into a realm of childhood reality they hadn't known existed: nighttime day care.

Although it was rare before welfare reform, such care is now available through a handful of centers and from women who take children into their homes round the clock. For families moving off welfare, it is paid for by government funds, drawing dozens of children who eat their dinners and fall asleep away from home, while their parents work or, like Evelyn and Elvin's mother, take classes.

From the minute Evelyn comes home from school and wiggles out of her backpack, she begins pleading with her mother.

"I don't want to go to day care," she whimpers in a tiny mumble.

"I wish I could stay home," says Elvin. He wants to play with his Batman toys, be home with his mother. But she goes to school in the evening, thanks to welfare reform, and Elvin and his sister are off to day care, from 4 to 9 each weeknight.

"They bother me when I'm doing my homework," Elvin mutters about the other children, many of them much younger. "And I never went to day care before."

While they're at the center, their mother, Ana Estrella, is taking courses at the local community college to prepare to be a day care worker herself. Her welfare checks run out a year from now, and Ana is diligently trudging through the steps she's been told she must take: getting a job, trying to learn English, preparing for the day when her check stops coming.

And so as the sun is setting, she takes her children to day care, when other families are preparing dinner or settling in for the evening.

Talking About Jobs

From the suffocating classrooms on its third floor to a frigid basement storage room where parents on public assistance are learning computer skills, the Henry K. Oliver School is a laboratory of welfare reform.

Dozens of parents fulfilling requirements that they either work or volunteer have come through these halls to offer their free services. They scrape garbage off lunch plates in the cafeteria, help students learn to read and guard the playground at recess. When they're off duty, they head to the basement to learn English, become familiar with computers and trade tips on where to find a job.

"For the first time in a long time people are talking about jobs and parents are having jobs," said principal Rick Parthum. "Now a kid will say, `My mom works. My father works.' "

Carl Derubeis, the school counselor, said that last year three children in one family had missed dozens of days of school before Christmas. He called the parents repeatedly, but "they wouldn't come in, they wouldn't come in, they wouldn't come in."

Eventually, when he warned their welfare benefits could be cut, the parents got the children to school. They missed just two days over the second half of the year.

Teachers Michele Wolders and Cristen Karamourtopoulos have felt the ripples of welfare reform even at the tiny desks in their first- and second-grade classrooms. The children talk about how little money their moms receive each month, the teachers said, and they know their parents are nervous that checks will end next year.

"None of them believe in Santa," Wolders said. "They know they aren't going to get Christmas presents."

One little boy has arrived late to school every day this year because his mother is now in a training program to get off welfare and she can't take him to school anymore.

"She's overwhelmed," said Karamourtopoulos. "He's tired of being late. He's crying in the hall because he knows he's going to get a detention."

Failure to Comply

Less than two miles south of the school, five children wait patiently for their mother in a bleak apartment with a smashed-in door and belongings piled in plastic bags around the room.

This is one of Lawrence's most troubled families. It was troubled before welfare reform, and it is more troubled now. Selene Diaz is facing drug charges by the police and child neglect allegations before the Department of Social Services, and recently her welfare check fell from $832 to zero when she failed to comply with the law's new requirements.

Though she had two short-lived jobs, Diaz hadn't sent in the required proof that she was working and how much. When she complied after nearly two months without funds, her benefits were fully reinstated.

The Diaz family is the kind of family the critics of welfare reform are most worried about. Although Selene Diaz, 23, has kept her family together so far, she has a sporadic work history and a large family to care for in the face of impending homelessness. Conceivably, the new law could push her to find permanent employment and to do what it takes to convince the child welfare authorities that she is caring properly for her children. Or, as welfare authorities have already done once, it could threaten her only steady income, further endangering her children, and possibly push them into foster care.

Diaz's children – Jose, 8, Rene, 7, Roberto, 6, Tanya, 6, and Maria Mejia, 3 – do not utter a syllable of complaint as they wait for their mother in the growing darkness on this afternoon of their latest family calamity. They don't ask when their mother will return. They don't ask for toys. They don't demand attention. They don't even beg to watch television.

They entertain each other quietly by tumbling together on the floor as their mother ferries their belongings to a relative's apartment for storage. She finally exhausted the patience of her landlord when the police raided her apartment for drugs a second time. She says she has done nothing wrong. Even so, she is being evicted and she is preparing to camp out with her sister or her mother temporarily until she can find someplace else to live.

After breakfast and lunch at school, it is unclear whether the children have had dinner. They said they ate hamburgers at school, and now they are snacking on sweetened chocolate powder from a can. They lick their fingers and dip them into the can, over and over. At about 7:30 p.m., they find a glass jar of pickles and pound on the lid to try to open it. Their babysitter, a friend of their mother's who is busy cleaning the kitchen floor, helps the children pry it open and hands each a pickle.

At the same time Diaz lost her welfare check, she said, she lost her food stamps. Although both were reinstated, she said she struggled to feed her children and keep them clean.

Racist neighbors, she charges, reported her to the Department of Social Services for child neglect. The anonymous letter accused her of failing to clean her house, allowing her children to go unfed and sending them to school dirty.

She has now received family counseling in how to discipline her children without hitting them. She has learned about "time out" and how to talk through problems without physical violence. "My kids used to be scared that I would hit them for little reason," she said. "I had these blackouts and I used to hit them hard."

She dropped out of school in the seventh grade and seems almost passive in the face of breathtaking problems. "I get stressed out with all these kids," she said.

Jose, the oldest, looks worried too. He rubs a pillow against his cheek as he sucks his thumb surreptitiously. He is the only one who has asked his mother for anything expensive this year, a pair of Nike shoes like other children have.

"That is more money than we can pay," she said. "He was sad, but he understood."

The children talk glowingly of the nearby Hennessey public school, where they get meals and presents, attention and help with reading. Tanya likes happy books. Roberto likes ghost books. Rene likes books about money, and Jose likes Charles Dickens.

His favorite story, as he thinks ahead to a Christmas spent moving from relative to relative without money or toys, is "A Christmas Carol."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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