A Welfare Story

In March of 2006 my husband and I were living with my parents, and our two sons, who were two years and two months old at the time. The tight finances that led us to move in with my parents, soon led to stress. One day my husband and my father had a disagreement over abuse that had happened in my childhood. My husband was arrested for domestic violence after the argument between him and dad spilled out of the house that I had grown up in and into the street where my little sister and I used to draw sidewalk chalk daisies and pink hearts with arrows through them.

The day after my husband’s arrest, my parents and I also fought. My parents wanted me to get a divorce. I wanted Dad to quit threatening to kill my husband in front of my children, and he refused. It seemed that we were at an impasse. Our damaged family could no longer exist under the same roof and so I left home that day with a backpack and my two children in a taxi cab.

We stayed at a friend’s house for that night, and were blessed with a gift of a hotel room for a week from my mother in law after that. I spent the first day of that week begging a judge to release my husband, and learning that even when he was released, he would be under a restraining order, restraining him from myself, my children, and my parents for a minimum of a full year. I was devastated; it seemed that overnight I had become a single homeless mother.

First I tried to make it work on my own, dropping out of my last semester of college to reduce expenses, and looking for work. I eventually found a three bedroom house and I filled out the application as though my husband were home, and had income, even though he lost his job when he went to jail and I didn’t yet know where he went. I was able to use our tax return to move in to that house, and I just prayed that my husband would have rent the next month. For that moment, our life plan was nothing but a hope and prayer.

My husband was desperate to return to our family, and did what he could to send us money or diapers or toys…but he had to be careful, the last thing we needed was for him to go back to jail for violating his restraining order. He found a friend to live with, went to a lesser paying job, and began to go to court ordered treatment for domestic violence. His job barely covered the expenses of maintaining his separate residence, gas and court ordered classes. Though he sent some money, it didn’t cover our the rent, and soon the tax money ran out, I wrote bad checks for a while, and I finished off a credit card, and then I went and applied for help.

At first I was frustrated because I had put off asking for help until rent was due and it took a long time to get money. Being new to the process, I didn’t understand that it would be several weeks before aid came. I remember meeting with my assigned financial worker as he was trying to determine my eligibility for aid, and he told me I needed to get written verification of income from my husband!

I was shocked because my husband was under a domestic violence restraining order. I was angry, I felt that the system had taken away my husband, and I felt that the same system should help me get by without him. I was angry, because although I was not afraid of my husband in any way, I felt that they had no right to ask me to contact him. What if he had been a violent man? They didn’t know, at that time, no one had asked me why my husband was even under the restraining order. I told my worker that I would not violate the court order to get that verification, and he looked at me, closed my file and said, “Well, then hon, I can’t give you any money. Come back if you change your mind.”

I left infuriated. I went to the bank, I got some statements that showed that although he had come in and cashed his paycheck, my husband had not deposited money in our joint account, and I went back to the Department of Social Health Services. I spoke to a different worker, since I had to reapply for services from the beginning anyway, and this time she reluctantly chose to accept this form of verification.

Soon after that I met with still another social worker to determine what my work first activity should be. I remember thinking that she was one of the nicest people I had yet dealt with. I also remember that I was often confused by the questions that she asked, and I was trying to answer them as honestly and completely as possible, thinking that this woman was supposed to be helping me. She asked about my mental health and I told her about my postpartum depression, I told her of my anger and frustration at being alone. She asked about my medical history, the children’s too.

I told her that my son had been a difficult pregnancy for me, that I had been on bed rest and that the week before he was born at nine months pregnant, I weighed 20 pounds less than I had when I got pregnant. I told her that I had virtually no support system for myself or my children, but that I had a case worker who came to my house, a nurse in a WIC program, and that she helped. In short, I spilled my guts. She smiled, and she told me that she would help me. She looked at my baby sleeping in my arms and touched his head, and then she said she’d be right back.

A long wait later, she did come back. She said she had called my WIC case worker who had told her that I had been a client she admired, and mentioned that I had quit smoking marijuana for the health of myself and my children as something she admired about me. My DSHS new case worker sat across the table from me and told me that I was going to drug treatment for marijuana addiction… I was surprised; after all I had been clean for more than a year. I began to get scared. I began to wonder what kind of power this woman had, after all, weren’t we just talking about how to get a job? She handed me a stack of papers, and I signed them. I agreed to do whatever she said, while crying, I told her I was a good mom. She smiled, took the papers and told me, “We’ll see…”

I spent the next several months in intensive outpatient treatment, I went to meetings in the mornings with other mothers, most of whom no longer had custody of their children and almost all of whom constantly struggled with either alcohol or methamphetamines. I lived in fear that my children would be taken if I didn’t jump through every hoop the State put before me. I attended treatment five days a week, three hours a day, without fail for nine months. I went to parenting classes for addicts, I went to AA, I went to parenting classes for domestic violence victims, I went to therapy for depression, for post traumatic stress disorder, I went to support groups for victims, and I went to groups and one on one therapies for addiction and codependency.

For most of these programs, I was referred to Behavioral Health Resources. BHR also referred me to the Housing Authority when I confessed that with a welfare grant of 546 dollars a month and rent at 850 we were facing eviction. I was afraid that they would take my children away if I couldn’t provide housing, and scared to ask for help, but felt that I had no choice. I did get some help, I got a housing voucher, and though I would have to move, it would drastically reduce my payment for rent each month. I took the chance and moved to a two bedroom low-income apartment. Suddenly, my ability to provide housing for my children became dependent on my absolute participation in drug treatment.

While I was doing all of these things, I was forced to send my children to daycare full-time. My eldest son benefited from this as he found adults he could trust, friends to play with, and an atmosphere in which he could feel safe and not have the worries that I am sure I inadvertently placed on him. He went to daycare for the first time at just over 3 years old, barely speaking and came back that first day, speaking in full sentences. I was happy to see that he was happy!

My youngest son did not do so well, he was sick all the time, and developed whooping-cough within days of starting daycare.  Soon after recovering from that, he got bronchitis. He was sick all that winter, and was hospitalized several times for pneumonia. I had a lot of trouble coping with his illnesses. I wanted so badly for him to be a happy healthy baby, and I already felt guilty because Daddy had been forced to miss so much of his young life. I am thankful that at least, my children had medical insurance through the programs offered by the state, or who knows what we would have done to pay for his treatment.

That fall I tried to return to school in addition to managing my state mandated treatment goals. I think that I could’ve finished my BA that fall, if it weren’t for the baby being sick so much… but when he got sick, I couldn’t go to class, because he couldn’t go to daycare and I had no where else to take him, and no one else to ask for help. I remember trying, going to classes here and there for a while, before giving up and dropping out of college for a second time in November 2006, still just one quarter shy of my BA.

I continued to struggle through treatment and work preparation activities that winter and following spring. In the summer of 2007 I began a work search, and started to apply for minimum wage and food service type jobs. In July (more than a year after he had been arrested) my husband’s probation officer told me he was eligible to come home….  and I was elated! The court papers finally came through in August.

Shortly after he returned home we had a particularly hard month, after trying to pay off his court fines and applying for a request for emergent additional needs to pay our electric bill. I turned in the request in the first week of September. The next week I reported a raise my husband was set to receive in the first week of October, and while I was in the office I asked about my emergent need request. They told me they didn’t have one in the system, and that now that my husband was making more money, we no longer qualified.

Realizing that my electricity would be shut off soon, I began to cry, I asked what I could do, and was told nothing, because I had not applied before the increase in wages. I insisted that I had applied the week before, but the worker said, ‘You know, you don’t just get to mooch of the system and make it work any way you want to…”

My tears quickly faded. I was infuriated. I asked to talk to his boss, he told me his boss was unavailable, and I said, “Well find someone who is available, I’ll wait.” And I sat down in the lobby. Every half hour for two and a half hours I tried to sign in on the computer again, explaining each time when I was called forward that I wanted to speak to a superior.

Eventually the same man I had originally spoken to came out, and called my name, I gathered my children and I went forward. I asked him when I would speak to his boss, and he told me that unfortunately, his boss had left the building. At this point I asked for a form to file a grievance. I was standing in the front of the office filling out that form when the police entered the building and were directed to handcuff me in front of my kids. The man I had been speaking to came out and told the officers that I had threatened him. Again, I began to cry, and explain that all I had wanted was to pay my electric bill.

A woman who had been sitting near the front of the lobby spoke up, she told the officers that I had not threatened anyone, that I had asked for a supervisor, and that she had heard the man call me a mooch.

The officers confirmed this with one other witness, and stood watch as I finished the form for a grievance, and turned it in, then they escorted us to the my car and I left with no money for electricity. After calling the electric company and telling this story, I was granted an extension on my bill.

Six weeks later I went to my grievance hearing where my original application was found in my file, with no note as to where it had been for so long, and I was awarded the funds to pay my bill. This was the last I ever heard of this matter.

My husband and I did not receive welfare for most of the winter, but were forced to reapply in February of 2008 when he was laid off from his construction job due to a fall in the housing market.

After nearly four months of meeting with various workers, I was finally given the chance to go to school full-time as my work preparation activity in the last week of May, 2008. I graduated with my BA in Environmental Science on June 13, 2008 after which we promptly moved to another state where I began to pursue my Master’s degree and we never applied for welfare again.

I tell this story, in an effort to remind others, that the process of receiving welfare isn’t easy. Surviving on welfare is miserable. Landing in a position where you need welfare can be a surprising experience that you never in your life planned, and I would strongly suggest that as we all head to the voting booths this fall, we remember this lesson. Because you never really know if a vote against welfare is a vote against your future self, do you?