City Paper is not for tourists
When Lisa went to sign up for welfare for her new baby, nobody told her she didn’t have to hand over the name of her boyfriend to qualify for assistance, she says. Over the past year, Lisa (not her real name) had been physically and verbally abused by the boyfriend, according to court documents. But she needed the money, so she reluctantly filled out the form indicating that the same man was the father of her son. When he subsequently got a letter in the mail asking him to visit the D.C. Corporation Counsel’s Child Support Enforcement Division, he “became enraged,” Lisa says. At first, he assumed the letter was in reference to another one of his children and declared that he would blow up that mother’s house, Lisa says. Eventually, Lisa told him the letter was about their son. “We had some battles,” she says now, looking weary, but keeping her recollections curt and to the point.
After thinking it over, Lisa’s boyfriend devised a way he could get out of paying the supportif Lisa signed over full custody of their baby to him. She would lose welfare benefits, but he wouldn’t have to pay child support. Lisa says he promised her that she could keep the child and that he would give her money instead of the city. And he capped off his proposal with a threat: He vowed that he would hurt her and the child if she did not cooperate with the scheme, according to court documents. In a letter Lisa says the father wrote to her, the message is clear: “If you try to get money out of me, I will do what I have to. Don’t make me angry at you, don’t fuck with me, don’t play with me….I can make your life miserable.” So last September, Lisa went to Superior Court and signed over her custodial rights to her 1-and-a-half-year-old son. Predictably, the plan fell apart. The father didn’t give Lisa any money, and the abuse continued.
“And that was when I finally left,” Lisa says matter-of-factly.
In October, Lisa went into hiding through a local domestic-violence shelter. As was his legal right at that point, the father took custody of the child at a Superior Court hearing. “It was awful,” Lisa says, wiping her hand across her face as if to clear the image from her memory. With the help of her lawyer, Lisa got a court order requiring the father to stay away from her, and in December she won joint custody over her son, arguing that the earlier custody deal had been made under duress.
Once Lisa moves out of the shelter, she hopes to regain full custody. In the meantime, she is unapologetically resentful. “I have been through hell and back,” she says. If she hadn’t had to involve the father with a child-support case, she believes, she might not have had to give up her son. “I miss him,” she says, finally smiling. “He’s so pretty. He’s a gorgeous little boy.”
Back when Lisa went to the Department of Human Services to apply for welfare last year, she had seen enough of the world to know that you rarely get something for nothinga fact painfully apparent at the modern-day welfare office. First, you have to wait, often for hours. You have to sit there with your mouth screwed up tight while the caseworkers walk out the door and off to lunch, as if you haven’t been waiting for them since 9 a.m. When you finally make it into one of the blue-gray Income Maintenance Administration (IMA) cubicles, you may get lucky and find yourself across from a caseworker who listens to your story as if it’s worth hearing. Or you may end up staring down a bureaucratic gatekeeper who is too overworked and underpaid to sympathize with your plight, who deep downor right up frontjudges you for asking for help. “You don’t want to be there in the first place, and then they treat you like crap,” Lisa says. “You would think this was their money we’re getting.”
Then the caseworker gives you a stack of all-important forms, and you hope you’ll pass. “It’s all about, ‘Is this information you’re giving me right?’” Lisa says. Today more than ever, getting a welfare check involves making a trade: You’ll get the money, but the price will be some labor and some freedom. True to the free-market paradigm, you’ll consecrate the deal by signing a contract that promises you’ll be suitably self-sufficient one day soon.
But the welfare contract also stipulates that you must surrender information, personal details included. To get assistance, you must hand over the name of your child’s fatherand his address, place of employment, and any other information as to his whereabouts. Then the government searchlight shifts from you to the father; if he’s located, he receives a letter ordering him to come down to the Child Support Enforcement Division and start paying his fair share.
The information-for-cash swap has always been a popular concept, driven by a simple logic: Fathers should be responsible for some of the cost of raising their children, after all, and mothers should cooperate in achieving that lofty goal. “Our system should say to mothers: ‘If you want our help, help us to identify and locate the fathers so he can be held accountable,’” said a finger-wagging President Clinton in the throes of his 1996 campaign to “end welfare as we know it.”
But for a very small percentage of women, turning over the father’s info can provoke a larger, more dangerous fight, hardly worth the food stamps. Studies have shown that up to 60 percent of women on welfare have been victims of abuse at some point in their lives. Throw a child-support order into the hot box of an abusive relationship, and it’s liable to arc into flames.
At the Domestic Violence Intake Center at D.C. Superior Court, program manager Meshall Thomas estimates that clashes over child support account for more than 10 of the domestic-violence cases her office processes each month. “A lot of times women come down and say that the respondent threatened to kill them after they heard about the child-support order,” Thomas says.
The requirement to provide information about the father has long been a part of the welfare exchange. But in the past, applicants could just play coyif they claimed they didn’t know the father’s name, that would often be the end of the discussion. In 1996, though, under welfare reform, Congress tightened the reporting requirements, making it much harder for women to get out of cooperating. Suddenly, there were consequences for bureaucracies as well as mothers: States (and the District) could lose up to 5 percent of their federal block grants if too many women failed to provide paternity information.
The new pressure to turn over information has the potential to put an abused woman in a double bindbetween a volatile boyfriend or husband and the government money she needs to leave him. So it’s crucial that the city handle the child-support issue carefully, fully informing such women of the consequences of their actions and their right to opt out of the requirement. But so far, D.C. welfare and child-support-enforcement administrators have done little to make sure that women are getting the message, according to local domestic-violence victims and their advocates.
Although D.C. law provides an exemption for women who can prove they would be in danger if they cooperated with child-support enforcement, people need to know about the escape hatch in order to use it. And despite the assurances of local welfare administratorswho insist caseworkers are informing peoplethe information doesn’t seem to be trickling down to all welfare applicants. The end result is that many women who have applied for welfare say they never knew that they didn’t have to give out the father’s name. Others say they didn’t understand that telling city workers his name would lead to a legal order for him to pay support. They say that if they had known what would happen, they would have thought long and hard before filling out the form, realizing that it could instigate a world of pain.
“Anecdotally, we know it’s a problem. We know that people aren’t told,” says Jessica Rosenbaum, staff attorney for the D.C. Legal Aid Society. “And even if they are told, it’s not explained to them what the ramifications might be of even providing the name of a parent.”
It’s hard to know exactly what goes down during a welfare application interview. The applicant and the caseworker often walk away with different versions, neither of which is objective. In D.C., the average caseworker has to worry about 300 clients at any given time, 250 above the number recommended by the Child Welfare League of America. So the incentive to carefully explain each exemptionand believe each applicant’s familiar storyis low. The applicants, meanwhile, just want to get their checks and have little incentive to help the city track down their children’s fathers. Many women are already receiving minimal support from the father and worry about risking both the relationship and the Pampers by cooperating with child-support enforcement. After all, even if the city succeeds in extracting money from the father, most of that cash goes directly to the governmentand the mother never sees it. So in any given application interview, the potential for collaboration is low.
Occasionally, though, third parties are present during intake interviews, offering some insight into what actually gets said. Katie Glynn, social services coordinator for the domestic-violence unit at Ayuda legal clinic, regularly accompanies clients to their intake appointments in order to act as an interpreter. So while she has an advocate’s biases, she is slightly more removed from the process than the caseworker or the client. Since she started working at Ayuda last March, Glynn has visited the welfare office at 645 H St. NE with about 10 different women. In all of those cases, she says, she has never heard a caseworker explain that the woman does not have to provide the father’s information if she may be in danger. Not once. And all of those women were coming out of domestic-violence situations.
Glynn only recently learned about the exemption herselfinformation that came in handy on her last trip to the intake office in January. As they went through the process of filling out forms, Glynn translated the caseworker’s instructions to her client. When the caseworker said she had to fill out information about the whereabouts of the child’s father, the client became agitated. “She said to me, ‘I don’t want this man to pay me child support, because in the past he would only give me money in exchange for sex,’” Glynn says. “Her fear was that if they contacted the man that she was most recently living with, that he would come back and expect sex or be violent.” So Glynn took it upon herself to explain to the client and the caseworker that she could apply for a waiver to the requirement on the basis of the man’s history of domestic violence. But for the caseworker, Glynn says, this policy didn’t ring a bell.
“I said, ‘I don’t think it’s safe,’ and the woman said, ‘You have to sign these papers in order for us to process your case today,’” Glynn remembers. Glynn’s client ended up leaving some of the forms blank. Less than a month later, she got a notice asking her to come to the Child Support Enforcement Division to provide more information. For now, the tug of war over information continues.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence say that exemptions need to be clearly stated and explained, especially for victims of abuse. “[Applying for welfare] is an incredibly overwhelming experience,” says Rosenbaum. “By the end of it, all you really know is that there are a lot of things you have to do or you won’t get the benefits.” The process can be especially daunting for non-English-speaking clients, Glynn says. “There’s always been some nervousness or confusion with every client that I’ve accompanied….A lot of people sign things without knowing what they’re signing.”
Attorney Leigh Goodmark has gotten so used to women not knowing about exemptions that she hardly notices it anymore. At a legal-information session she held last month for domestic-violence victims receiving welfare, none of the five women present had ever been told that they didn’t have to cooperate with enforcement of child support, Goodmark says. “When we ask clients whether they have been informed, they almost always say no.”
The administrators of D.C.’s welfare programs flatly deny that women aren’t informed about their rights. Kate Jesberg, deputy administrator of the IMA, points out that applicants first fill out “screening” forms, which ask whether they have been physically abused. And, in case that process doesn’t raise a red flag, all caseworkers are supposed to explain the exemption for domestic-violence victims, Jesberg says. “We ask them to cooperate with Child Support. We also tell them at that time that if they have reason for not cooperating, then in fact they are not required to fill out the form. All they have to do is say, ‘I fear domestic violence if I cooperate with you.’ Fine. That’s it. We send that to Child Support Enforcement to determine the veracity of the claim.”
Initially, Jesberg said she did not know if applicants also receive written notification of the exemption. But a day later, she confirmed that caseworkers are in fact supposed to give applicants a two-page form that explains the requirement to cooperate as well as the opportunity to get an exemption. “If they’re having people sign something, then people don’t know what they’re signing, because no one that I’ve talked to believes that they’ve been informed that they have a right not to cooperate,” counters Goodmark.
Official policies aside, Jesberg has a harder time saying whether caseworkers are actually doing what they are supposed to do. “They are required to [explain the exemption], and they have all been trained to do it,” she says. Two caseworkers contacted by Washington City Paper refused to discuss the matter, referring the reporter to the department’s spokesperson.
Jesse Goode, general counsel for D.C.’s Department of Human Services, says it’s unreasonable to expect oversight over caseworkers’ every interaction. “Look, there’s 200-plus people that work at IMA. We can’t guarantee to anyone that each one of those people is doing in each interview what they are supposed to do.”
Plus, Goode says, even if applicants do not get the message at IMA, they will get it at the Child Support Enforcement Division, where they have to go to arrange the child-support order. Philip Browning, who heads the division at D.C.’s Corporation Counsel office, confirms that his employees do in fact explain the “good-cause” exemption and have applicants sign an accompanying form laying out the details. But he also concedes that if a woman has already filled out the paternity forms at her welfare intake, both she and the father in question will automatically be sent letters notifying them of the child-support orderand that happens before the woman ever comes into his office and hears about the exemption. “If we didn’t know there was an issue, we would probably go ahead and send a letter to both,” he says.
Logistical details such as timing can create gaping holes in the safety net. And the potential that welfare mothers will fall through is high, especially under stressful circumstances. Meredith McKeen, a domestic-violence worker in D.C., recently had a client complain that the city had threatened to cut her welfare benefits because she would not cooperate in finding her child’s father. Her child had been conceived as a result of a sexual assault when she was a teenager; the last thing she wanted to do was to track him down for child support.
A pile of forms and a standard intake session didn’t suffice for McKeen’s client, who not only thought she had to supply paternity information, but also left the welfare office mistakenly believing that she had to physically help the city hunt down the father. Fortunately, with McKeen’s help, the woman eventually got an exemption from the requirement and now receives welfare. But she had to depend upon McKeennot the cityto explain the rules to her.
And even if a caseworker indeed mentioned the exemption to her client and she just didn’t realize it, McKeen says, a single statement buried in a string of other regulations does not resonate with a person already struggling with poverty, a child, and a history of trauma. “From what I know about people who are in crisis, that’s the kind of information that probably needs to be stated over and over,” McKeen says. “It’s really important the way information like that is presented.”
Any time the government takes on delicate family issues, process becomes paramount. And in D.C., at least, the system does not appear to function reliably enough to prevent communication breakdowns. “Everyone has to be told. They have to be told the consequences of providing this informationthat [the father] will be contacted, that the city will set up a child-support arrangementand they have to be told that asserting their right to a good-cause exemption does not jeopardize their application,” Rosenbaum says.
Otherwise, the risks to mother and child can easily overwhelm the uncertain benefits of holding the father financially accountable. “It’s important for people to understandincluding the Department of Human Servicesthat they are causing families harm if they force them to do things that put them at risk,” says attorney Joan Meier, who heads George Washington University Law School’s domestic-violence clinic. “It’s going to force some people back to their batterers, and I suppose it will force some people out on the streets.”CP