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90'S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

What Happens to Battered Women When the Safety Net Is Cut?

December 08, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Social workers know how mothers often wind up on welfare: They finally decide that a bad man is worse than no man at all.

One hotline volunteer recalls a typical welfare referral. A woman in her late 20s calls looking for a shelter. She has four kids, two by her husband and two from an earlier relationship. They argue all the time, whether her husband is drunk or sober, but he's usually drunk. Sometimes he slaps her.

What she really wants is for him to quit drinking, quit hitting her and to be a good husband. But it doesn't seem to be in the cards.

So she says she wants to dump him, raise the four kids by herself and live in a shelter until she qualifies for welfare. In a few years, she thinks she'll be able to get a good job.

She used to be a waitress, but that was a long time ago. She had a few office jobs, but her husband showed up at work and they fought. She was fired.

The woman made that plan for her family under welfare as we knew it. Now that it's over, domestic abuse workers are starting to fear that that woman--and thousands like her--may be left with only one choice.

"Our main concern is that a lot of women need to rely on public benefits as a safety net in order to escape violence," said Deeana Jang, a board member for the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence, a coalition working to mitigate the harshest effects of welfare reform.

According to a study released this year by Chicago's Taylor Institute, the majority of women on Aid to Families With Dependent Children appear to be running from abusers. In one study, 56% of women entering a job training program for welfare recipients reported they were current victims of domestic violence. In another study in Washington, 60% of AFDC recipients said they had been abused at some point.

Not only has violence pushed these women onto welfare, it has sometimes kept them there. Some women who claim to be single heads of household in reality haven't broken ties with their abusers and may still be living with boyfriends who want them to remain dependent and isolated, the study reported.

In story after sad story collected from around the country, women reported how abusers sabotaged their efforts to seek education, training or work to keep control of the relationship.

One woman said her partner turned off the alarm clock so that she would be late for a job interview. Another said her boyfriend cut off all her hair believing, correctly, that she would be too embarrassed to return to work. Abusers hide or destroy clothing, break promises to provide child care and stalk their partners to ensure they are not consorting with other men.

In at least two cases, women were killed after ending relationships and finding work when their partners remained unemployed.

Pat Butler, director of Sojourn, a Santa Monica crisis shelter, said, "If you're in a [battering] relationship and you decide one day to learn a job skill, what does that tell the batterer? Probably that you're getting ready to leave. Anybody who understands domestic violence knows he's probably not going to allow that. With children, it's far more difficult."

After a recent workshop with colleagues on welfare reform that so far promises a two-year limit on public assistance with a five-year lifetime cap, Butler said, "We sat there with our mouths hanging open. We couldn't believe it. No one could figure out what women with children are supposed to do."

Meanwhile, advocates like Jang are proposing California adopt a family violence amendment to their welfare plans that would identify battered women when they enter the system, extend time limits if needed and provide referrals for support services. Six states (Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire and North Carolina) have adopted the so-called Wellstone / Murray Domestic Violence Provision.

Drafting its final plan, due next summer, the Legislature has shown bipartisan sympathy for the issue, said State Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). "I'm mostly optimistic," she said. But with stiff competition for limited funds, she added, "It's always a struggle."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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