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Stay at home, moms.

It sounds wholesome, but requiring teen mothers on welfare to live with their parents may do more harm than good

Keep children who have children at home where they belong," President Clinton decreed this spring, calling on all states to "make it clear that a baby doesn't give you a right, and won't give you the money, to leave home." The welfare reform legislation recently passed by Congress and signed by Clinton makes it clear indeed: All states will now have to mandate that teen mothers who receive public assistance not only stay in school, but live at home. Amidst the outcries surrounding the reform's passage, next to nothing was said about this seemingly benign provision. The messy details of the live-at-home rule, however, say a great deal about what we can expect from this round of welfare reform.

Even before the federal requirement, the live-at-home rule has been spreading like wildfire among the states. Since the Family Support Act of 1988, states have had the option of requiring parents under 18 to live at home or in some supervised adult setting in order to receive welfare. Twenty-one states have already chosen to implement the provision--13 in the last year alone.

That's because, at first glance, the policy sounds so sensible. Teen moms need all the support and structure they can get. It is hardly unreasonable to require them to live in adult-supervised environments. Policymakers and much of the public agree that the government should not pay teens to move out of their homes; yet in many places, teens have been getting a bigger check when they do so. Proponents reason that the live-at-home rule will end this perverse incentive to move out.

Except that, more often than not, teen mothers don't leave home for a bigger welfare check. They leave because they're either not welcome or not safe at home. And that's only one of the policy's flaws. Even as the federal government rushes to expand the requirement, for example, there's remarkably little data by which to evaluate the impact of the policy. And while the welfare legislation does contain a provision to exempt teens from unsafe homes, the exemption is vaguely phrased and relies solely upon the discretion of overworked, often undertrained, state caseworkers. Meanwhile, the alternative to sending teens home--adult-supervised group homes--costs more money than either the federal government or the states are willing to put out.

Home Is Where the Hurt Is

Lawmakers are right on one count: For impoverished young mothers, living alone is far from idyllic. Takesha Mitchell, who first ran away from home at age 15, lives on her own with her two children in D.C. She says there's no one to help her. Each month she receives $326 in cash assistance, but "it's really, really hard" to make the money last. Mitchell says she wants to work because she's so bored at home. In the meantime, her check was recently scaled back. Sometimes, Mitchell says, she gets so frustrated with her children that she catches herself falling into the same abusive patterns her mother taught her.

The possibility of Mitchell abusing her children is frightening. But so is the prospect of Mitchell and her children returning to the home where she learned that behavior firsthand. Mitchell says she left home because her abused her mentally and physically and used drugs. Eventually, she says, her mother wouldn't let her return anyway.

Teen mothers are more likely to come from families that are already poor, have been on welfare for over a generation, and are headed by former teen parents themselves. "If kids have a supportive family environment, nine out of ten times they will stay," according to Lauren Paine, program manager at Ruth's House, a structured living center for teen mothers in Massachusetts. When teens do move out, it's usually for good reason.

Recent studies show that a majority of poor teen mothers have been victims of sexual abuse, and that incest survivors are more likely to become pregnant during adolescence than girls who are not sexually abused. A 1992 study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect sampled a large and diverse pool of young mothers who became pregnant as teenagers. The researchers found that nearly half of the women had been raped at some point. About the same proportion had been violently abused. Over two thirds had been sexually abused, a majority of them by a family member when the girls were not yet 10 years old. These numbers are dramatically higher than the rates for the general female population.

The scant data collected by state welfare agencies confirm these findings. Michigan, which enacted the live-at-home requirement in 1992, found that 46 percent of the 1,468 teen mothers who lived independently in 1994 had been kicked out by their parents or guardians. Thirty-seven percent would be at risk of injury, abuse, or neglect if they moved back home. Almost as many teens were already known to Michigan's child welfare workers because their families had been involved in cases of abuse or neglect.

But it's not just abuse that sends teen mothers from their homes; so can a variety of other circumstances. Take 18-year-old Sara Emmert of LaCrosse, Wisc., who has lived at a residential support center for four months. Her baby boy is due in October. Because her baby is bi-racial, Emmert's parents would not let her stay at home. "I didn't have anywhere else to go," she says, explaining how she ended up at the center.

Despite these realities, state welfare reform measures--and now their federal counterpart--have been quick to stereotype, and thus condemn, teen mothers. Last year, Massachusetts implemented the live-at-home requirement as part of Governor William Weld's welfare overhaul. Since implementation, the number of teens receiving welfare in Massachusetts has dropped significantly. For now, the state has no idea why. States generally aren't required to monitor the effects of the live-at-home provision. And in any event, no sound research can be done without a control group--which states don't have.

Likewise, Wisconsin, which implemented the live-at-home requirement in 1993, has no data on the policy's effects. Early in 1995, the state could not even say how many teen mothers were receiving welfare, since their agencies were in the process of automating their data collection system. They're still working on it today. Yet Governor Tommy Thompson's administration plans to make the live-at-home requirement even more stringent and sweeping under his reform plan.

Nowhere to Hide

If a teen mother can prove that returning home will put her in danger, the law does provide an escape clause. The new federal legislation requires all teens to live at home unless the state agency determines that the mother has been or could be abused living with her family. Yet the directives offer no standards for how state caseworkers should assess whether the teen is in danger. The responsibility of protecting vulnerable teen parents rests heavily on the shoulders of the individual states and their caseworkers.

But caseworkers often show a serious "lack of understanding about how teens think," according to Joan Tighe, executive director of the Alliance for Young Families in Boston. Caseworkers generally have far too many clients and little or no training in dealing with teens. The Child Welfare League of America recommends case management ratios that are lower than 50 to 1. Some states have ratios as high as 500 to 1. While these overburdened workers shuffle through the paperwork, teens and their children wait for assistance and a suitable home--sometimes for two months or more. In Massachusetts, teen parent programs report that some state workers have been misinforming teens--issuing them ultimatums to either go home or lose benefits--without explaining opportunities for exemptions or for placements in alternative settings.

The need for intensive case management is particularly vital for victims of abuse, who generally reveal their histories only to people they trust. But teen mothers often have little reason to trust anyone. When Mitchell went to apply for welfare, for instance, the caseworkers "made me feel like I was low." She claims state workers treat young mothers--the most at-risk welfare population--with less respect than older women. And states are unable or unwilling to spend the additional money needed to hire more workers or train them to deal with teenage moms.

Under the new federal legislation, teens who manage to gain exemption from living at home are to be placed in adult-supervised settings. Given what the data show on the quality of teen mothers' family situations, you would think states would be scrambling to prepare for an influx of teen mothers into group homes.

Hardly. Consider Wisconsin, which plans to force all teen mothers to either return home or live in adult-supervised residences next year under an even more radical reform program than it now has. Jean Rogers, an administrator in the state's Department of Work Force Development, says she's confident that group homes will be able to accommodate all mothers unable to return home. "We expect that only a fraction ... will need to be placed [in group homes]," she says, because "a number will stay with their parents when faced with the alternatives." The idea of teens returning to abusive or unsuitable homes does not concern Rogers, who claims that "often the homes are not all that terrible.... It's often just a combination of a frustrated parent and a rambunctious teen." But all available research contradicts her sunny assessment.

Not only that, but administrators of living centers in Wisconsin strongly disagree that there are enough adult-supervised settings to absorb the exempted population. Gerard Hall, a residential support center for teen mothers, has been in operation for 70 years. But today, according to supervisor Julie Conway, "a lot of teens fall through the cracks." The center provides teens with parenting courses, requires them to pursue educational goals, and offers counseling and substance abuse treatment, all for about $119 per day, per mother and child. Yet Gerard Hall frequently turns needy teens away, even as it operates below full capacity, because of insufficient county funding.

The same is true across the country. A statement compiled by advocacy groups such as the Center for Law and Social Policy, Family Service America, and the National Women's Law Center notes that "adult-supervised living options are largely unavailable." In Tennessee, there are three such centers in the entire state. Robinson Regen, an administrator at Monroe Harding Children's Home in Nashville, has watched state funding dry up during the last few years, leaving her agency struggling to raise about $100,000 in lost aid.

But don't look to the congressional welfare reform bill to solve the problem: It provides no additional federal funding for the "adult-supervised settings" it says exempted teens must live in. That means it's in states' interests not to see problems at home, because doing so means finding a costly alternative placement.

Without money to back it up, in other words, the live-at-home policy has real flaws--a fact U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesman Michael Karfen concedes. "It's not a perfect picture," he admits, even as he maintains that the live-at-home requirement is a "good, appropriate policy." Asked how HHS plans to monitor and learn from states' experiences, Karfen acknowledges that no formal procedure is in place. Instead, he expects anecdotal information to "trickle in" over the next few years. To make sure things don't go awry in the implementation, he says, the public will just have to pressure states to "be more accountable." Given widespread public indifference to the plight of welfare mothers, it's hard to be optimistic that such pressure will materialize.

Ideally, each state would implement a generous exemption policy backed up by funding for alternative living centers. Each agency would employ specialists with more expertise and fewer cases to deal with all adolescent recipients. Teen mothers who have been abused would have access to extensive support services to interrupt the cycle of abuse. They would receive increased education and job training services, since victims of abuse often suffer from stunted developmental growth. And states would have to monitor the effects of the live-at-home requirement and perform reliable analyses on its long-term impact.

This wish list, of course, has as much chance of being fulfilled as universal health care does of clearing Newt's Congress. In the meantime, the only welfare "reform" the government has approved cuts spending by $56 billion. Real welfare reform costs money. But until politicians and the public accept that, we will continue to see policies like the live-at-home requirement--a provision that has never been evaluated for its efficacy, that contradicts the little we know about teen motherhood, and that could force teen mothers unwilling to return home into even more desperate straits. With little ado, that policy just became federal law. It may also become a lesson in how a well-intentioned but poorly conceptualized solution can turn out to be a problem of its own.
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Title Annotation:making teen mothers live at home
Author:Ripley, Amanda
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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