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Prisoners of Abuse

Behind many women on welfare stand men who want to keep them there.

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Not long ago, Amy was precisely the kind of welfare mother people love to hate. She received Aid to Families With Dependent Children for the better part of a decade and had two children while on the dole. She entered job-training programs and dropped out repeatedly. She went to nursing school and flunked out. To many she was a lost cause, trained to be dependent on the liberal welfare state.

By contrast, Amy's live-in boyfriend Johnny, the father of her children, was the kind of person welfare reformers love to love. He never abandoned his family during those desperate years. Amy could always count on him to be there watching over her. In the era of the deadbeat dad, Johnny might be mistaken for a hero.

Amy did everything she could to get off AFDC, but like millions of women in her position her single biggest obstacle was not one you might expect: lack of transportation, unavailable job-training slots, a grade-school education, prohibitively expensive child care. The real problem was Johnny, a violently abusive man who was always home, keeping his family together under lock and key. The last thing he wanted was for Amy to acquire the skills she might need to become independent. So when Amy enrolled in employment-training programs, Johnny said he would call the facility and threaten the staff.

Still, Amy went to school, studying to become a licensed practical nurse. And for three nights prior to her first exams, Johnny fought with her, keeping her from getting any sleep. She walked into her test exhausted. "I was so tired when they whipped out that six-page test, I just shut down," she remembers. She flunked out 12 weeks short of graduation.

During her years on welfare Amy did go through four different jobs, none of which she kept for more than a month. Johnny would jump her at the bus stop in the morning and drag her through the mud. "I would leave the house perfectly dressed, clean, showered," she says, "and by the time I got to work you would think I slept outside on the sidewalk." He would also meet her as she came out of work, slap handcuffs on her wrists, and throw her into his van. As a last resort, Amy says, "He said he would call my boss and say, 'You need to fire that bitch. And if you don't, I'll come blow up the whole damn building.'"

The situation became so dire that Amy says she "snapped," spending months at home staring out the window, never getting out of her pajamas. Finally she hit bottom. "I had some pills," she says. "I was gonna cook them into me and my kids' food, and we were gonna go to sleep and we just wasn't gonna wake up." She couldn't bring herself to do it.

Two years ago, on January 2, Johnny brutally beat her. "This was the turn of the new year," she says. "And I told myself, not another year, not another damn birthday. I had just turned 27 and I knew there was nothing to live for. So I went to him and I just told him, "Kill me.' And I was ready to die. And I scared him. And that's why I walked."

Had she known the troubles she would face trying to make it on her own, Amy says she probably would have stayed.

It's Dierdre's first morning at the Greenhouse, a battered women's shelter run by the Chicago Abused Women Coalition. When it opened in 1979 the Greenhouse was the first battered women's shelter in the city. A towering 100-year-old farmhouse that seems pulled from an Andrew Wyeth painting, the Greenhouse has beds for up to 42 women and children. No one can stay longer than 120 consecutive days, as mandated by the state. Today, as usual, all the beds are full.

Dierdre has a ring of welts and scratches circling her neck, and a purple bruise as wide as a chrysanthemum scars her forearm. Last night her boyfriend of seven years tried to strangle her--not an unusual occurrence, but this time it drove Dierdre to bundle up her three-year-old son and head for a strange bed in the middle of the night.

"He was always telling me I was less than zero," Dierdre says. "When I went to the grocery store, he always came with me to make sure I was spending every penny of my welfare check. Whenever he was home, I had to stay in the bedroom with the baby. We couldn't never leave that room."

Sharon stays down the hall from Dierdre. "Girl, you were in prison," she says, shaking her head. Two weeks ago Sharon left her abuser, whom she'd married in 1987 after dating him for five years. The abuse didn't start until after the ink on the marriage license had dried. Like many battered women who escape their abusers, Sharon has returned to public welfare for support.

Sharon left her abuser for the first time in 1990 after he put her head through a wall. She was working downstate as a nurse's assistant, a job she says she would never have landed if the Illinois Department of Public Aid hadn't paid for six months of nursing school, child care, and transportation to and from class--funds that are likely to disappear if federal welfare block grants become law. Her husband never liked her having a job, continually fearful that she might meet someone else and leave him, eternally convinced she was having affairs with coworkers. So he gave Sharon scratches, bruises, and black eyes that made her too ashamed to show up for work. Other times he kept her up all night fighting, night after night, until she had to call in sick from exhaustion. When she did make it to the office, he would call several times a day, even though he knew she was not allowed personal calls. Once or twice he called Sharon's boss and told her that Sharon had to leave work immediately because their son was seriously ill. Sharon would rush home to find her son playing contentedly, perfectly healthy. "He just wanted to get me fired," Sharon says with a shrug.

Sharon left her abuser four times, but each time his contrition was so convincing (showers of candy, flowers, and promises) or her options so limited (another night in a homeless shelter with by now three children) that she always went back to him, even after he attacked her during a pregnancy, causing her to lose the twins she was carrying. "I didn't know it was abuse," she says. "I thought it was normal. I thought that since I wasn't in the hospital I wasn't being battered."

When it comes to women on welfare, finding accurate data about domestic violence is nearly impossible--for the simple reason that hardly anyone has ever bothered to ask. In a July 1995 report from the General Accounting Office assessing welfare-to-work programs in eight states, domestic violence is never mentioned as a factor that might prevent a participant's success (the GAO report synthesizes the results of nine previously published reports, meaning that none of those nine report authors bothered to inquire about domestic abuse). The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation--the primary not-for-profit research consortium evaluating employment training programs since the early 1970s--has never inquired about domestic violence. Still, in a 1991 MDRC study of 617 women in New Chance programs around the country, 16 percent identified partner abuse--without even being asked--as a factor interfering with their completion of the program. That percentage is particularly sobering considering the hoops through which even trusted counselors often must jump to get women to speak about the violence in their lives. For its next three-site evaluation, scheduled for completion in 1999, MDRC will for the first time include questions focused specifically on domestic abuse. However, as Barbara Goldman, MDRC's vice president for research, is quick to point out, "We are just at the beginning phase of understanding how to even measure domestic violence." Then she adds in a different tone, "If this is the first time we've looked at domestic violence, that is pretty sad."

Across the economic spectrum, a paucity of reliable data about domestic violence is the rule, not the exception. As the August 1995 Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report begins, "Estimating rates of violence against women, particularly sexual assault and other incidents which are perpetrated by intimate offenders, continues to be a difficult task." This is an understatement. Studies report that anywhere from 6 to 62 percent of women in this country experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, depending upon how researchers define domestic violence (threats? slaps? punches?) and how long it needs to last to be counted (once? several times? years?). In 1989 surgeon general C. Everett Koop told the Pan American Health Organization that "battery is the single most significant cause of injury to women in this country." He added that one in every five women visiting an emergency room was put there by an abusive partner.

The Department of Justice's August report does bring to light a particularly cruel--and largely overlooked--aspect of domestic abuse: the poorer a woman is, the more likely she is to get battered. According to the report, the average annual rate of "violent victimization by an intimate partner per 1,000 females age 12 or older" dramatically increases as annual family income decreases. For women in families making more than $50,000 a year, the reported rate is 4.5 percent. In families making between $20,000 and $29,999, the rate more than doubles to 9.5. And in the poorest families, earning less than $10,000 a year, the rate jumps to 19.9 percent.

Since the creation of the first federal welfare programs 60 years ago, supporters and opponents alike have repeatedly insisted upon one thing: the welfare system should--indeed must--encourage families to stay together. As one prominent legislative analyst recently wrote, "Welfare reform cannot be accomplished unless reformers are willing to put fathers back in the home."

It's at least 95 degrees in Bernice Haynes's tiny cubicle at Chicago Commons Employment Training Center, a comprehensive welfare-to-work program serving long-term welfare recipients in West Humboldt Park. Haynes works as a domestic violence counselor and has held this position, which was created for her, since March 1993. She has never had a problem maintaining a full caseload.

Life Skills class ended a few minutes ago. Of the 17 women currently enrolled, 9 admit to living in abusive relationships. "And this is exposed," Haynes points out. "I'm not talking about what people are hiding from us." Classes at Chicago Commons are canceled when the mercury tops 90, which it has done with frustrating regularity throughout the summer, the second hottest on record. Haynes wipes the sweat from her forehead and neck. The few air conditioners in the windows of this enormous second-floor warehouse space don't stand a chance against an August sun in a cloudless sky.

Haynes outlines the typical day of a typical client. "She wakes up. Her abuser is up. Everyone's up. She gotta fix breakfast, she gotta get the kids ready, she gotta make sure the baby-sitter knows that the baby has a cold, make sure he got his medicine. OK, she gotta fix lunch for herself and her kids, she gotta get everybody to the bus stop. And he's sitting there at the table: 'Where's my breakfast?' OK, so right about now, very beginning of the day, she's kinda worn out."

Haynes laughs, something she doesn't do very often. Having survived 13 years of abuse herself, Haynes says she never learned how to play. She turned 30 last month. At work there isn't much to laugh about either.

"OK, she's tired, but she still gonna push herself because she know she gotta make that money," Haynes says. "So she's out the door. Oh, and before she left he played a mind game on her: 'Make sure you bring your dumb ass back home as soon as you get off work because if I gotta come looking for you I'm gonna beat the shit out of you.' So right then and there, she knows she can't be five minutes late when she gets home, can't stay five minutes if the boss needs her for something, or she gonna get jumped on when she walks through the door."

Haynes is painting a rosy picture, relatively speaking. Her typical client doesn't have a job, and probably couldn't get one if she tried. Her typical client has been on welfare for more than six years. Women enrolled at Chicago Commons have little or no work history and low basic skills. Just under half read at a sixth-grade level or below when they enter the program. And astonishingly more than half live with abusive men.

"So she's at work all day," Haynes continues. "She's working with this in her mind all day. And the boss comes and tells her to do something. But she's lost in all this. She can't concentrate. So the boss gotta come and tell her again. From the boss's point of view she's been daydreaming all day, she doesn't know how to do her job. But from her point of view she's trapped."

Haynes is describing posttraumatic stress disorder, a common diagnosis for women currently in or recovering from abuse. Symptoms include chronic anxiety, impairment of memory, insomnia, and "flashbacks" during which a person relives the original trauma as though it were actually taking place. Experts say that battered women often experience it as severely as combat veterans.

"OK, so now she's getting off work, and let's let her off at 5:10," Haynes goes on. "She gonna be shooting out of that door. She done called him, he ain't at home. She done paged him, he ain't called her back. So she's frantic now because she know she gonna get jumped on. And she just hope and pray that he don't beat her in her face so she don't have to come to work tomorrow and have to hide it."

One of Haynes's clients approaches cautiously, perhaps disoriented by my presence in a facility where men are no longer allowed. Too many have shown up simply to disrupt classes or to insist their girlfriends come home with them immediately. Not long ago a man barged into a classroom a few feet from me with a gun tucked in his pants and dragged his wife out by the hair. "We can't tell the difference between men who are supportive and men who are coming to stop their women from being here," Haynes explains. "So we knock them all out."

The client, who has missed two classes and is therefore one absence shy of expulsion from the program, silently hands Haynes a doctor's note. Haynes studies it, brow furrowed. "OK, you go on to the doctor," she tells her client at last. "And I will see you back here tomorrow. Don't play with me. Because you know I'll be on you, I'll be at your house. And I will tell your mama. Don't you play with me."

Haynes returns to her story. "When she gets home, after he's finished with her, she has to pick herself up out of that. She gonna feed her kids, she gonna show them she love them. She gonna make peace with daddy. By the time she crawls into bed she bone tired. But he ain't gonna let her sleep because now he want to throw down. And because she's not enthusiastic enough to please him, he gonna keep her up all night. So she might doze off for an hour or two. And then the next day she back on the same road again. And by the time she get to her office, she asleep. And she fired, too.

"I lived my life like that every day."

Haynes focuses on an unknown spot across the room. "Now everyone is saying, 'You gotta get off welfare, you gotta get a job, and you got two years to do it.' Who's gonna hire you if you're abused? How you gonna maintain a job? To me that is just idiotic thinking.

"The message I get from the government is this: we want our money back, but you can go ahead and die."

You might not expect to find a playground of noisy preschoolers at an academic research center. Yet on a September morning outside the Taylor Institute, an independent public policy and advocacy organization headquartered in Bucktown, the swing sets are full of kids from a Head Start program. Framed color photos of children playing on these swings line the stairway up to the administrative offices. Taylor Institute director Jody Raphael explains that the group believes the everyday experiences of people on welfare should dictate public policy, not the reverse, which she says is typically the case. While the targets of some of the most sweeping social-policy changes in American history show up in most not-for-profit think tanks as aggregate statistics, this morning a handful of flesh-and-blood targets are playing in the Taylor Institute's side lot.

Raphael, who founded Chicago Commons Employment Training Center in 1991, doesn't need statistics to understand the disabling effects of domestic violence on welfare mothers. Raphael has spent years watching batterers prevent their girlfriends and wives from getting off welfare, while popular opinion and conservative policy makers have done little but label such women as lazy. She created the center four years ago to provide literacy training to women on welfare. "We kept seeing women who repeatedly signed up for work programs and dropped out," she says. "I wondered why they kept dropping out. I wondered why it was taking them so long to get GEDs. They weren't ready for job training, and they had very few resources to help them get ready."

After about a year of operation, the training center's staff realized they had to become adept at recognizing domestic violence. Last year Raphael was named director of the Taylor Institute and began to make the connection between long-term welfare dependency and domestic violence. At first many of her colleagues seemed skeptical, she says. Was it true that fully 58 percent of the women enrolled at Chicago Commons Employment Training Center last year lived in abusive relationships--or more accurately, that 58 percent admitted it? (This year's percentage is the same.) Were boyfriends really tearing up women's assignments, hiding their winter coats, and slashing the tires on their cars as deliberate acts of sabotage? Wouldn't men want these women to get good jobs to bring more money into their households?

Raphael began to contact welfare-to-work programs around the country, and everyone she talked to told her the same thing: domestic violence was the biggest obstacle women faced in trying to get off welfare. In January of this year Raphael authored the most comprehensive report to date on the links between partner abuse and welfare dependency. According to the report, welfare-to-work programs nationwide routinely find domestic violence affecting anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the women they serve.

"What program providers around the country are seeing is this," Raphael explains. "Young girls in high school, 14, 15 years old, living in generational cycles of poverty. They get involved with an older guy, at least four years older typically, and they get pregnant, which is usually because both parents want it. The combination of benefits from AFDC [a cash grant, food stamps, and a medicaid card] provides some level of support, especially in terms of medical care, but her rent is going to be more than her monthly AFDC check. So she cannot afford to live by herself. In order to survive, most of these women have to depend on a man. There are very few women who can live independently."

Raphael's grassroots knowledge runs counter to the prevailing views of many policy makers and media commentators, who see the enormous growth of poor, female-headed households in the last two decades as one of the most serious social crises of our day. Raphael, on the other hand, suggests that very few female-headed households actually are in the welfare ranks and those that are can't exist solely on welfare. "In order to survive, most of these women have to depend on a man," she explains. "You don't have this 'syndrome' of women making it on their own." Instead, women on welfare generally don't admit that a man lives in the house for fear of losing their welfare eligibility.

For the large number of women on AFDC and in abusive relationships, dependence on a man can be deadly. And things will only get worse if Congressional leaders have their way. "With the proposed welfare time limits coming out of congress, this family unit as I have described it will not be able to avail itself of AFDC for more than two years," Raphael says. "When the benefits cease, everyone assumes that the woman will be forced into the labor market. But if you have an abusive and controlling man in the picture, what he does not want is for her to go out and get a job. She might meet another man. She might become financially independent and leave him. Time limits will leave her even more dependent upon her abuser. Time limits will put women in that situation at grave risk."

Raphael acknowledges that her views turn current social policy on its head. But she thinks such a revolution is long overdue.

"For years a lot of welfare critics have talked about the cycle of dependency," she says. "And the theory has been, 'Well, these people are afraid to work, and we're unfortunately not getting at their psychological problems, but we certainly have to stop wasting tax dollars on perpetually failing students.' But maybe that cycle of dependency is really a cycle of posttraumatic stress disorder.

"Look at Monica Seles. There was apparently nothing wrong with her tennis, but for two and a half years she couldn't face competing--and that's more time than we're giving women on welfare. She had nightmares, flashbacks. It took months of the best intensive psychotherapy money could buy to get her past all that. And this was the result of one random, freak event. When you think of the years of deliberate terror that battered women face, in addition to the debilitating effects of poverty, you begin to understand the depths of the paralysis."

"I saw domestic violence with my parents," Bernice Haynes says. "I saw it with my grandparents. When I would go to my mother to tell her I was being abused, she would say, 'Sometimes married people fight.'" Like Sharon at the Greenhouse--and like dozens of women with whom I've spoken--Haynes used to think her abuse was normal, that somehow she brought it upon herself.

In counseling women at Chicago Commons, Haynes says that her first hurdle is often trying to convince them that abuse is not only unusual but unacceptable. It's not uncommon for a client to challenge her, asking how abuse can be bad when she sees it everywhere in her family.

Also like Sharon, Haynes spent many nights in shelters with her two children, though none as nice as the Greenhouse. "If you go to a shelter," she says, "you can stay there for a maximum number of days. Where you gonna go after that? That's the million dollar question. If you don't get transitional housing--and there's not much of that--you gotta go from shelter to shelter. And if you got school-age kids, and you're moving from shelter to shelter, where are your kids going to school at? Nowhere. You just broke the law, didn't you? And you're not entitled to your welfare anymore, are you? Every rule favors the abuser." According to Illinois welfare regulations approved by the Department of Health and Human Services just two months ago, a child's extended truancy can cut off a mother's portion of her family's welfare benefits.

"So what you got?" Haynes asks. "You got no home, you got no money, and you got no support system. You know what your family tells you? 'You're too dangerous to be around. I don't want you over here upsetting my household.' All you got is that abuser. So I tell all my women, if the only way you can see yourself surviving right now is with that man, then you go back home. Because he's got the best offer. Because after you leave that shelter I got nothing for you."

To date Jody Raphael has had little success getting anyone outside of the social service world to listen to her. When she released her January report to 2,000 media outlets, ten reporters followed up. "The reporters I talk to don't want to write about it," she laments. "I think part of the problem is that they don't believe a word I say. They think I'm making this stuff up."

But Raphael is not easily dissuaded. Last month the Taylor Institute and Women Employed, a Chicago-based research and advocacy group dedicated to improving women's economic status, brought together some 60 domestic violence workers, welfare advocates, social policy experts, and university academics from around the country to address partner abuse as a barrier to a woman's transition from welfare to self-sufficiency. None of the participants needed to be convinced of the conference's urgency. Judith Hammond, professor of sociology at East Tennessee University and director of the Fresh Start program in Johnson City, says that 70 to 90 percent of the women in her program have been abused. She added that often when women are ready to go to class in the morning their boyfriends become "conveniently unavailable," disappearing or getting drunk when they promised to baby-sit. Mary Lloyd, a supervisor at the Single Parent Employment Demonstration Project in Kearns, Utah, says that many of the AFDC mothers in her program "don't want to go out in public. They don't even want to talk to us." Leigh Klein, executive director of the Women's Employment Network in Kansas City, Missouri, explains that "it's not unusual for women to tell me that self-esteem, which we try to instill in them, is something they can get beaten up for."

Pat Williams, a job specialist at Non-Traditional Employment for Women in New York City, did not attend the conference, but its findings weren't news to her. Williams says she regularly sees men trying to convince their girlfriends or wives who attend employment programs that they are bad mothers for not being at home with their kids. According to many domestic violence experts, this kind of insistent, calculated psychological badgering, designed to tear down a woman's self-esteem, can be more debilitating over the long run than physical attacks.

The closer women get to completing their program, Williams says, the worse the abuse becomes. It's a pattern everyone I talk to has acknowledged. Williams has worked for two different employment-training programs in New York as well as a temp agency on Madison Avenue. "Everywhere I go," she says, "I see the same thing."

Sixty-six floors above downtown Chicago, amid the austere luxury of the law firm Schiff, Hardin & Waite, the troubles of antipoverty advocates--let alone those of their constituents--might easily fade into the climate-controlled air like Lake Michigan receding into the smog. The firm has provided everything that Raphael's conference goers could want to calm their nerves: plush leather chairs, recessed lighting, free food, and hundreds of meticulously sharpened pencils and neatly stacked legal pads. The advocates, researchers, and policy tinkerers have come to the conference to figure out how to get the untold story of battered welfare women onto the desks of legislators and journalists before welfare reform traps such women in hellish situations. As Martha Davis, senior staff attorney with the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund, emphasizes in an early small-group discussion, "If that bill passes, we will doom hundreds of thousands of women to a massive increase in violence, abuse, even murder."

Most of the participants came to Raphael's conference hoping to help exempt women affected by domestic violence from the two-year time limit in current welfare legislation, so the clock wouldn't start ticking until after they'd escaped their abusers. The Senate welfare package includes just such an exemption in an amendment sponsored by Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone and drafted primarily by NOW's Davis (it's one of the few provisions of proposed welfare reform that have received no media attention). The House bill contains no such provision, and no one in Raphael's group was counting on it being in the final welfare bill.

But in the waning hours of the conference, an alarming and unexpected realization emerged. Telling their "untold story" might backfire. A federal exemption from new welfare guidelines for victims of domestic violence might make things worse for them. "I can imagine what a legislator will say after I convince him that half of the women on AFDC are battered," one attendee began. "He'll say, 'That's terrible, but that's too big a problem. I can't afford to fix it.'"

And what might happen if battered women were exempted from time limits and work requirements? Having been convinced that such women are extremely difficult to serve, states might leave them on welfare indefinitely; an exemption would give a state no incentive to provide alternate services that battered women might need to achieve economic independence, such as counseling or housing. Domestic violence could make hundreds of thousands of women ineligible for employment training. "We can assume that a lazy state will pick their 'worst' 25 percent, identify them once, and keep them on the ranks," another participant pointed out. "That would comply with federal law. The state would think, 'They're hopeless, so why serve them?'" In other words, if the carefully crafted Wellstone amendment becomes law, it might leave battered women with even less chance of getting the help they need.

"The amendment is a plus in a worst-case scenario," said a third participant. "But I can see each constituency carving out its own exemption--one for substance abuse, another for learning disabilities, and so on--so we'd be pitting poor women against one another. Why are we trying to carve out exemptions from a law that is terrible in the first place?"

Yet the pending "terrible law" has achieved broad support. Several participants say that's thanks to a simple but ubiquitously reinforced lie: the welfare system has failed. But they claim welfare by and large has done exactly what it was intended to do--assist people going through rough times. As bureaucratically unwieldy as it is, most people who enter it get off welfare within a year or two.

As the conference wrapped up, the proposed first order of business was clear: convince President Clinton to veto whatever welfare bill comes out of Congress. But the participants seem to realize that this goal may be as feasible as ending poverty. Especially with elections looming.

Amid all the fact sheets, government reports, and impassioned speeches, one aspect of domestic violence among the poor is conspicuously overlooked: its effects on children. There are some studies and statistics on the problem, but Bernice Haynes speaks more eloquently than any research paper.

"When my daughter was little, people thought she couldn't talk," Haynes says. "They sent her to speech therapy to try to get her to talk, but she wouldn't talk to nobody. Except me." Only after Haynes left her abuser did her daughter start talking to other people. Haynes realizes that her daughter had learned to keep quiet after watching her live in constant fear of saying the wrong thing. Words, which break the deadly silence of domestic violence for so many women, seemed life threatening to a four-year-old.

Haynes's son was, in her words, a little firebug. "You'd wake up and find your feet on fire. He burned up an entire room with the baby asleep in the crib." Now she understands that he set fires because he was trying to save his family. "He wanted it to be over," Haynes says. Today, after two years of therapy, he doesn't play with matches anymore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.

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