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A Second Chance As Mom

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 mother.

At 31, she has nine children - the first born when she was barely a teenager.

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 absence.

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 said.

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 for fighting.

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 irritates her.

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 5-foot-3 frame.

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 again.

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 parent."

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 other's sentences.

"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 again.

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 everywhere."

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.

Marilyn's DCF caseworker suggested supportive housing.

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 forever.

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 a mother.

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 behavior.

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 troubled boy.

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 past her.

"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 forgetting something?"

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.

Mother's Day

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 $60,000.

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 government.

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 of dysfunction.

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.

Already, Nucci said, anecdotal evidence looks encouraging.

"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 said.

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 housing concept.

"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 first

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 says.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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