Ruth McNatt remembers a time less than two years ago when her future seemed one of limitless opportunities.
A 43-year-old divorcee whose youngest child had just moved away from her Arcadia home, McNatt was beginning a new and independent life. She found a rewarding job as a controller for a nonprofit organization in Pasadena. Freed from the financial burdens of child-rearing, she considered enrolling in law school.
"It was wonderful," McNatt recalled. "For the first time in my life, there were no distractions. It was a very self-indulgent time, but I felt it was deserved. The children were gone. My time was my own."
On May 13, 1986, that brief period of bliss came to a tragic, painful end. McNatt's daughter, Karen Jones, was walking across the playground at an elementary school near her Chino home when she was stabbed by an emotionally disturbed teen-ager.
Spectators from a nearby Little League baseball game rushed to the woman's aid and called paramedics, but Jones, 24, died later that day in a hospital. A 16-year-old youth was charged in connection with the slaying but was found unfit to stand trial. He remains in a state hospital.
When McNatt was told of the murder, she had no time to indulge her own grief. She had to pick up her daughter's three children from their baby sitter, tell them of their mother's death, comfort them and assume responsibility for raising them.
On that day, McNatt's life changed from that of a financially secure career woman to struggling sole provider for 7-year-old twin girls Miranda and Jennifer and their 4-year-old brother, Timmy. McNatt said she does not mind reassuming the role of nursemaid and disciplinarian for three children; she just can't afford it.
"I've chosen to raise them," she said. "They're my grandchildren, I love them and I'll provide for them. But I can't do it alone.
No Help From Father
The children's father, whom Jones divorced a year before her death, has not provided financial assistance and is living in Texas, said Mia Baker, a special assistant with the Los Angeles district attorney's office.
This has left McNatt to forage for assistance through a morass of county, state and federal social service agencies, none of which has a program suited to her needs.
Shortly after her daughter's killing, McNatt applied for the district attorney's Victims-Witness Assistance Program. Because the suspect in the crime has not been tried, the program covers only the cost of therapy for the survivors. They have received counseling for more than a year, but because of administrative delays, the state has only recently begun paying benefits.
McNatt receives $602 a month from Social Security and from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC). Although she earns $27,000 a year, she must find a baby sitter or day care center for her grandson and for her granddaughters when the girls are not in school. During summer vacation, the cost of day care alone exceeds what she receives in public assistance.
Eclipsed by Costs
Although the family will get cost-of-living increases in the AFDC and Social Security benefits, the payments will not keep pace with the children's needs. Adjusted for inflation, McNatt will receive no more to feed her grandson when he is 14 than she gets to feed him at age 4.
Since she assumed custody of the children, McNatt's savings have been depleted. She has taken out a second mortgage on the house she received as part of her divorce settlement. When that money runs out, McNatt will have to find some other way to make ends meet.
"I'm frightened because I don't know how I'm going to do it," she said. "As they grow, their needs grow. . . . My back is to a wall."
The future would be considerably brighter if the children were covered under the state's foster-care program. As a foster parent, McNatt would receive $950 a month to provide for the children. And unlike AFDC family benefits, foster-care payments would increase as the children grow older.
Additionally, McNatt said, foster parents are viewed differently by society than those who receive AFDC benefits.
"Philosophically, AFDC and foster care are two totally different programs," she said. "One is treated as a handout--that you're less than human because you're not living up to your responsibilities. Foster care is more like, 'Aren't you a wonderful person because you're taking care of these kids.' "
But because McNatt is related to the children, she is ineligible for the foster-care program. Relatives may qualify as foster parents only if the children have been placed in protective custody.
This would have happened if no one had taken responsibility for them after their mother's slaying. By taking in the children immediately, McNatt unwittingly forfeited any chance for them to receive such benefits.
Time Element Crucial