State Helps Troubled Parents Succeed By Providing A Home, And Advice
July 3, 2005
By HILARY WALDMAN, Courant Staff Writer
In a house on a littered street in Hartford where idle young
men rule the sidewalk, Marilyn Quinones is trying to become a
At 31, she has nine children - the first born when she was barely
But mothering is new.
In the early years of her children's lives, drugs, depression and
reckless immaturity took Marilyn away from them.
She lost her children four years ago when state investigators found
them filthy in a rat-infested apartment and they sent Marilyn to
prison for neglect.
She came home to six boys and three girls who were older - and hardened
by the streets, the indifference of foster care and their mother's
In the year since she has been reunited with six of her children,
four - Jose Jr., Sasha, Joshua and Johnny - have had run-ins with
the law. All six have been suspended from school at least once. Joel,
12, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Of the three others
who don't live with Marilyn, Jonathan, the oldest, is in jail, and
5-year-old twins Brittney and Brianna live with a relative.
It would be easy to crash on the street again. That's what the old
Marilyn might have done.
"When times used to get rough for me I would go out and find
a crowd of people and drink and do drugs," Marilyn said. "I'd
act like I don't have kids."
This time, Marilyn has a parachute - a state program that attempts
to shatter the link between poverty and neglect by offering troubled
parents a home and a chance to raise their children more responsibly.
People working nationally to reduce homelessness and improve child
welfare have praised the Connecticut program - a partnership between
the state Department of Children and Families and a New Haven-based
social service agency - as a model for the country.
"People do better with services if they have permanent housing," said
Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Her organization recently spotlighted the Connecticut supportive
housing program as a strategy that works.
Child welfare advocates inside and outside the state say the program
might keep some children out of foster homes.
Typical state statutes define neglect as the lack of adequate food,
shelter, clothing or supervision. But, too often, poverty is confused
with neglect, a fact that needlessly sends many children into foster
care, said Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for
Child Protection Reform, a group dedicated to keeping families together.
"There is hardly an impoverished child who at some point would
not fit that description," Wexler said.
In a case such as Marilyn's, where
drug abuse has complicated the picture, "you need drug treatment, not foster care," Wexler
Connecticut came to a similar conclusion in 1998, when DCF tested
a program that rebuilds families by offering them permanent low-rent
apartments and case managers to walk them through the many steps
of adult life - from paying bills to getting food, cooking meals,
enrolling children in school and keeping up with counseling and treatment.
The program has been so successful that it doubled in size this
year and became available in almost every town across the state.
But success for Marilyn has not meant an easy ride.
When the children returned to her home, Marilyn worked at a cafe
in the Hartford Civic Center. But the minute she punched in every
morning, the calls would start from school - Johnny's not doing homework;
pick up Joel, he's banging lockers; come get Sasha, she's suspended
It got so bad that her co-workers stopped answering the phone. It was always
for Marilyn. Finally, the manager suggested she take some time off.
At home, Marilyn scrubs everything with disinfectant and cooks rice
and pork. Her calendar is packed with special education meetings
and trips to juvenile court and group therapy.
When the house is quiet, though, she's restless. The afternoon passes
slowly with "Passions" on TV. After that, she lowers
her body onto a folding chair on the porch, talking in Spanish
on the portable phone and groaning about the early June heat.
She has no car and no money. Jose Rodriguez, the father of eight
of her children but no longer her partner, moves the blanket-curtain
aside and sticks his head out an open window. She's glad he comes
around to help with money and the kids, but his almost constant presence
She taps her feet on the deck and fidgets on the folding chair.
She wants to go someplace.
"There's still a lot I need to learn, especially now that my
kids have problems," says Marilyn, her voice husky from sadness,
cigarette smoke and the sheer effort of lugging 255 pounds on a a
All In The Family
Five years ago, when a federal judge put D. Ray Sirry in charge
of the state child welfare system, Sirry recognized that without
a radical change in approach, DCF would end up caring for Marilyn's
grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Either that or they'd burden
the state as inmates or welfare recipients.
"We see children in foster care whose mothers were also in
foster care," Sirry said.
Their stories are disturbingly similar. Parents are desperately
poor. At least one family member turns to drugs for money or relief.
Drugs lead to destructive decisions and somebody gets hurt or killed.
Eight out of 10 children who enter the DCF system are there because
of substance abuse by a primary caregiver, Sirry said. Looking beyond
the primary caregiver, he said, there is a drug abuser somewhere
in the family of 90 percent of children in state care.
"Substance abuse, violence and poverty," Sirry said. "If
we could address those, DCF would be a very small agency."
But, like the families themselves, the state's efforts to break
the cycle have failed miserably.
In the 16 years since a federal judge appointed an independent monitor
to run the child welfare agency, children have continued to bounce
from neglectful homes to overcrowded foster homes, perpetuating a
loop of broken children growing up to form broken families.
Sirry was encouraged by the experience of Peter Nucci, an orchestra
who became a social worker and ran The Connection, a nonprofit social
service agency in New Haven.
In the 1970s, the agency started to successfully treat young, substance-abusing
mothers. But as soon as they left the program sober, they returned
to the streets, homeless, using drugs and neglecting their children
Nucci's agency then offered recovering mothers intensive social
support and safe apartments. As a result, a significant number of
those mothers stopped spinning through the drug treatment turnstile.
With more than 5,500 children packing Connecticut's foster homes,
Sirry wanted to remake DCF into an agency that rebuilds families,
instead of taking them apart.
Last year, the state invested almost $4 million to offer Nucci's
supportive housing program to parents who have lost their children
to foster care.
"The concept is, we're working with the parent," Nucci
said. "The children are the beneficiaries of having an effective
In style, Sirry and Nucci are unlikely partners. Sirry, in his silk
tie and knife-sharp pleats, would fit in well in a corporate boardroom.
Nucci, favoring Polo and topsiders with no socks, looks as though he's
rushed from the yacht club to make a meeting. But they finish each
"They don't have experience or role models when they're growing
up to handle these things," Nucci said, explaining why parents
such as Marilyn can find daily life so challenging.
"What Peter's describing is teaching a whole generation of people
coping skills so they can do this," Sirry said.
A Motherless Child
Marilyn Quinones learned about parenting from an alcoholic mother
who gave her up as an infant, and from a custodial aunt who provided
food and shelter but little love and who, Marilyn said, looked the
other way when her husband started molesting the frightened girl
when she was 8.
Marilyn got her first period while she was playing Double Dutch.
She panicked, never having been told the facts of life. She was equally
shocked at 14 when a relative noticed her belly swelling.
In 1987, she dropped out of seventh grade at Parkville School and,
with a teenage boyfriend by her side, gave birth to her first child.
Marilyn sent the baby, Jonathan, to live with her cousin, and shortly
afterward landed in the arms of Jose Rodriguez, an older man she
said she despised while growing up. Within a few months she was pregnant
Jose Jr. is now 17, a muscular man-child who was supposed to graduate
from high school but didn't because he stopped going. He steps onto
the porch and walks through the front door past his mother without
acknowledging her. The two have not talked for days, since Marilyn
kicked him out for smoking marijuana and being disrespectful.
He is limping. A grapefruit-size abrasion oozes pink near his shoulder,
the spot where he hit the pavement when a car slammed into him while
he was on his motorbike. The car just drove off. Marilyn wants Jose
Jr. to go to the hospital. He doesn't listen.
After Jose, Sasha, 15, Joshua, 14, Joel, 12, Johnny, 11, and Javier,
8, came along just as quickly as Marilyn's ovaries could reset themselves.
Between having the babies, Marilyn and Jose Sr. fought. He was dealing
drugs. She was shooting up his heroin and his profits. She used cocaine
and marijuana, too.
She gave birth to Javier in a drug treatment center, but left the
program early, certain she was done with drugs. Two years later,
in 1998, she gathered the rest of her children from the homes of
aunts and cousins, but little had changed.
"Me and Jose started again with the fights. I was working full
time, 4 a.m. to 2 p.m.," Marilyn said. "I would leave Jose
with the kids; he was smoking pot, he was doing his little dirt on
the street, people were in and out of the house, the kids were running
When she awoke in bloody sheets early in 1999, Marilyn assumed she
was having a miscarriage. But the emergency room doctor said she
was pregnant. This time it was twins.
Marilyn could only cry. She went to bed. Even getting up just to
send the kids to school took more energy than she could muster. When
a DCF case worker found the kids in the rat-infested apartment, Marilyn
and Jose were charged with multiple counts of risk of injury to a
minor. It was the third time child welfare workers investigated neglect
complaints at the Quinones-Rodriguez home. This time, Marilyn and
Jose would pay.
`The Light Of My Life'
At the state women's prison in Niantic, Marilyn wanted to die. But
the photos of her children pushed her forward. There were the boys,
all pudgy and baby-faced, carbon copies of one another. And beautiful
Sasha, her little-girl sweetness often shielded by downcast eyes.
Without them, Marilyn discovered, "I'm
nobody. They're the light of my life, that's my kids."
Two days after her release in September 2003, she got the job at
Au Bon Pain, the French-style cafe inside the Civic Center mall.
She was working hard, saving money. But there was no way she'd ever
be able to pay for an apartment big enough to allow her to try again
with all of the children.
She would have to sign a contract promising to stay away from drugs,
go to counseling, keep all school and medical appointments for the
children and abide by her lease. In return, she would get a federal
Section 8 housing voucher that would allow her to pay $51 a month
for an apartment that normally would go for more than $1,000. If
she completes the program, the reduced-rent voucher will be hers
In April 2004, Marilyn moved into a four-bedroom apartment in Hartford's
West End. She hung creamy-white curtains with a brocade swirl. With
donated beds and a brand new glass-top dining table, she set up a
place for her children to live.
With the apartment came Elizabeth Martinez-Hernandez, a no-nonsense
social worker sent by The Connection to ensure that once those
empty bedrooms were filled with children, Marilyn would become
With responsibility for no more than 12 families - about half the
average caseload of DCF caseworkers -Martinez-Hernandez had plenty
of time to help in concrete ways and act as a model for constructive
When Marilyn needed a Christmas
tree, Martinez-Hernandez bought one at Wal-Mart, then sang "Feliz Navidad" while
the family set it up.
When the gas company sent a shut-off notice, Martinez-Hernandez
took Marilyn to apply for energy assistance from a community agency.
When the public school tried to expel Joel because of his disruptive
behavior, Martinez-Hernandez sought help from the state agency that
advocates for disabled people to get services for the emotionally
With Marilyn in the passenger seat of her white Toyota Camry, Martinez-Hernandez
whispers inspirational messages, hoping that maybe, when all seems
hopeless, faith will carry Marilyn through.
"I say this is not easy, you have to put your faith in God," Martinez-Hernandez
says. "You've got to believe."
Marilyn moved into her new apartment in April 2004. It was so big
and quiet. She would tiptoe from room to room, imagining her children
sleeping in the new beds.
Three months later, just before the July 4 weekend, Jose and Javier
moved in with their mother. Joel, Johnny, Joshua and Sasha came next,
and by October the silence was a distant memory.
A Year Comes To An End
Marilyn is on the porch this early June day when Johnny and Javier
arrive home from school. It has been almost a year since they were
reunited. Their mom is seated near the front door, but they march
"Excuse me," Marilyn barks into the front hallway. Her
interactions with the kids at times resemble brusque commands more
than conversation. "Excuse me!" she shouts again. "You
Javier returns to the porch, realizing
he did not greet his mother. She hugs and kisses him and praises
him for rewards he's brought from class. "Javi, you got homework?
Go get it."
Javier returns with a gigantic bag of sour cream and onion chips
from Price Rite. Marilyn says he can't go play until the homework
is done. He wanders off the porch and onto his bicycle. Marilyn acknowledges
that she needs to work harder on being consistent.
Although she's grateful for the help she's gotten this year, she
sometimes resents the intrusion.
"I have no privacy. These people are invading my space," Marilyn
says of the many social workers assigned to backstop her life. "But
these people are helping me. I haven't done drugs in eight years.
I've been to prison and back. I have a job, I have a home, my house
is furnished, my bills are paid. I have my kids back."
And when her case managers suggest that a year is coming to an end
and that it might be time for weekly social work visits to end, tears
well up in Marilyn's eyes.
She remembers the March day when her new case worker, Nancy Santos,
walked with her up and down the grave rows at Mount St. Benedict
Cemetery, helping to search for her mother's stone.
While Marilyn was trying to rebuild her children's lives, she was
working to reconstruct her own. When Marilyn was born, she was given
her mother's last name. But it was her relationship with her father
that endured. She wanted to legally make her last name match his
- Tirado. To do that, she would have to supply the court with her
mother's date of death, a date she had to find in the cemetery. She
remembers riding in the car with Santos to keep her appointments
with her probation officer and the quiet talks she had with her about
the trouble with Jose.
"Who am I going to talk to now?" she
wondered. She could say things to her supportive housing case workers
that she didn't feel comfortable telling the DCF workers, who she
always feared would write her secrets in their charts.
At the end of a tearful conversation, social workers and administrators
at The Connection agree to keep Marilyn's case active, maybe for
six more months, maybe longer if she needs it.
Because supportive housing is much less expensive than foster care,
the state can afford to be generous. The annual cost to the state
for one child in foster care ranges from $8,000 to $14,000. So a
year in foster care for six of Marilyn's children would be roughly
The cost of supportive housing for one family is about $11,000 a
year, not including the rent voucher, which is paid by the federal
The cost includes weekly social worker visits, transportation and
petty cash, which allows case managers to pay for everything from
car repairs to summer camp, dental bills, furniture, overdue rent
or utility bills and almost any emergency cost without running up
against government red tape.
While the average family gets intensive support for 18 months, the
program is flexible and without strict time limits.
The program is so new it is impossible to say for sure that a permanent
home and a year of intensive family support can undo generations
But early evidence suggests it might.
Most people, said Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness,
have trouble coping when a move or a home renovation temporarily
disrupts their lives. Imagine, she said, trying to tackle drug treatment,
child-care crises, bad bus service and overdue bills without a permanent
place to live.
Without a home, "how could you expect someone to recover from
substance abuse, let alone take care of ... kids?" Roman asked.
Now, 336 families are involved in the DCF program and 229 have graduated
and no longer receive support. This month, The Connection plans to
begin a three-year study with technical support from the University
of Connecticut that it hopes will determine whether those graduates
are succeeding as parents.
"We're seeing the ones who are completing the year or 18 months
or so [of supportive housing] are not returning to the DCF system," he
If research proves that it works, Nucci and Sirry said supportive
housing could offer a solution to a foster care crisis in Connecticut
that has prompted the state to consider opening group homes or paying
foster families to care for displaced children full time.
"My sense is probably 75 percent or so of children who get
involved in this program when they are young are going to be able
to avoid foster care," Sirry said. "You're probably looking
at breaking the cycle for 75 percent of families."
Martha Stone, a lawyer who has pushed hard for changes in Connecticut's
child protection system, was skeptical about the program's ability
to break the foster-care logjam. Nonetheless, she lauded the supportive
"It's a viable alternative to foster care," Stone said. "You
have a huge need to look at other alternatives."
In Marilyn's house, some evidence of success came on May 8, when
Sasha decided that the family would observe Mother's Day for the
A freshman at Hartford High School, Sasha took a baby-sitting job to
make money for a card. She was going to buy a regular one, but on the
way to the checkout, she spotted something better - a 2-foot-tall card
with a flower on the front.
"Mom, the biggest card I could find ... Still doesn't match
the size of your heart. Thank you for your endless love," it
Sasha and Jose Jr. sneaked the card into a bedroom and got all the
other kids to sign it. Even the twins, who were visiting for the
weekend, added their names in neat, kindergarten print.
It was Sasha's first Mother's Day at home since she was 11 and went
to live with an aunt. Before that, there was nothing about motherhood
to celebrate anyway.
In the morning, the kids acted
nonchalant, pretending that as in past years they were sitting
out the holiday. Then they screamed "Happy
Mother's Day!" and presented the card.
All Marilyn could do was cry.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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