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Los Angeles Times Interview : Peter Digre : Trying to Protect Children Enmeshed in the Welfare-Reform Plans

October 22, 1995|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times

If Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolution prevail, Aid to Families with Dependent Children will no longer guarantee a welfare check to every poor family who needs help. State governments will determine who gets what, though Washington would no longer require governors to split the welfare bill.

Under the House-proposed rules, most legal immigrants need not apply. Welfare mothers who have additional children better make do with what they have. Young teen mothers, under the age of 18, would get no cash benefits to provide for their babies. Those who did get aid would have two years to get off the dole. They could reapply, but House Republicans would set a lifetime eligibility of five years--not long enough to get a child out of grade school.

What would happen to those kids? Peter Digre, Los Angeles County director of Children's Services, makes dire predictions that thousands of little welfare orphans will flood foster homes. He's worried because he runs the local foster-care and child-protective services, which could become modern-day poorhouses if Washington throws millions off welfare.

If the House bill becomes law, Digre expects to see an explosion of neglect and child abuse--since both rise when parents lose jobs or benefits. But he isn't counting on Washington to cough up an extra dime. House Republicans plan to save the federal government more than $100 billion over seven years while ending long-term dependency on welfare and reducing out-of-wedlock births.

Digre would solve these daunting social problems with jobs, education and training as well as more day-care--so parents can work. He endorses a time limit on welfare--but not if it leaves children out in the cold.

A social worker by training, Digre, 50, holds a doctorate in divinity. Long on compassion, which seems in short supply these days in Washington, he has been to Congress to plead the case of poor youngsters. He prefers the Senate bill--but only as the lesser of two evils.

Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Bob Dole, would pare federal spending on welfare by $70 billion over seven years, but would require states to continue spending 80% of what they spent last year on welfare. Their bill would also make welfare optional, set a deadline on the dole, limit benefits to immigrants and give a lot of power to the states. Tempered by moderate Republicans, the Senate bill also would allow states to determine if pregnant welfare mothers should get additional benefits for the new baby, and if teen moms should get AFDC checks.

Is compromise possible? That could depend on presidential politics. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) has rallied hard-line Senate conservatives to the House position, while Dole, the GOP front-runner, has made room for somewhat more moderate views. If a House-Senate conference committee can find common ground, President Bill Clinton could still veto the bill. That would stall welfare reform--and perhaps buy Digre more time--but not for long.


Question: What impact will welfare reform have on the children you serve?

Answer: Inevitably, no matter how it comes out, over the course of anywhere from immediately to five years, millions and millions of children are going to be losing their economic assistance. First of all, children are going to be dropped because they hit the time limits, either two years or five years. Secondly, children are going to be dropped because they are not able to have a paternity determination on the father. Third, many will be dropped because they are legal immigrants . . . .

Q: How will this affect Los Angeles?

A: We have about 650,000 children on AFDC in Los Angeles [County]. Our projections are, over a period of time, somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 or 350,000 children are going to lose their economic assistance . . . . When a family's economic assistance is curtailed, people start to get their utilities cut off. They can't pay their rent so they are forced from their housing and end up homeless.

As people go into that downward spiral from poverty to destitution, we start to see an increase in physical abuse. When AFDC was cut about 6% in 1992, in the year after that we saw a bump of about 10% more kids in the child welfare system, and about 20% more child abuse reported . . . . As families come under increased stress, they become more desperate--and they become more violent.

So we saw a big jump in physical abuse directed at children.

As families are unable to provide the necessities for their children, namely food, clothing and shelter, we see a lot of children being reported for neglect. They don't have food. They don't have a place to live. They don't have medical care. They don't have adequate clothing . . . . As families hit on this downward spiral, we see a lot more kids in the foster-care system.

Q: How many children are currently under the protection of the county?

A: About 60,000 today.

Q: Do those children receive welfare?

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