Woman Fights Social Service Agencies to Support Grandchildren

Times Staff Writer

Ruth McNatt remembers a time less than two years ago when her future seemed one of limitless opportunities.

A 43-year-old divorcee whose youngest child had just moved away from her Arcadia home, McNatt was beginning a new and independent life. She found a rewarding job as a controller for a nonprofit organization in Pasadena. Freed from the financial burdens of child-rearing, she considered enrolling in law school.

"It was wonderful," McNatt recalled. "For the first time in my life, there were no distractions. It was a very self-indulgent time, but I felt it was deserved. The children were gone. My time was my own."

On May 13, 1986, that brief period of bliss came to a tragic, painful end. McNatt's daughter, Karen Jones, was walking across the playground at an elementary school near her Chino home when she was stabbed by an emotionally disturbed teen-ager.

Killer Hospitalized

Spectators from a nearby Little League baseball game rushed to the woman's aid and called paramedics, but Jones, 24, died later that day in a hospital. A 16-year-old youth was charged in connection with the slaying but was found unfit to stand trial. He remains in a state hospital.

When McNatt was told of the murder, she had no time to indulge her own grief. She had to pick up her daughter's three children from their baby sitter, tell them of their mother's death, comfort them and assume responsibility for raising them.

On that day, McNatt's life changed from that of a financially secure career woman to struggling sole provider for 7-year-old twin girls Miranda and Jennifer and their 4-year-old brother, Timmy. McNatt said she does not mind reassuming the role of nursemaid and disciplinarian for three children; she just can't afford it.

"I've chosen to raise them," she said. "They're my grandchildren, I love them and I'll provide for them. But I can't do it alone.

No Help From Father

The children's father, whom Jones divorced a year before her death, has not provided financial assistance and is living in Texas, said Mia Baker, a special assistant with the Los Angeles district attorney's office.

This has left McNatt to forage for assistance through a morass of county, state and federal social service agencies, none of which has a program suited to her needs.

Shortly after her daughter's killing, McNatt applied for the district attorney's Victims-Witness Assistance Program. Because the suspect in the crime has not been tried, the program covers only the cost of therapy for the survivors. They have received counseling for more than a year, but because of administrative delays, the state has only recently begun paying benefits.

McNatt receives $602 a month from Social Security and from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC). Although she earns $27,000 a year, she must find a baby sitter or day care center for her grandson and for her granddaughters when the girls are not in school. During summer vacation, the cost of day care alone exceeds what she receives in public assistance.

Eclipsed by Costs

Although the family will get cost-of-living increases in the AFDC and Social Security benefits, the payments will not keep pace with the children's needs. Adjusted for inflation, McNatt will receive no more to feed her grandson when he is 14 than she gets to feed him at age 4.

Since she assumed custody of the children, McNatt's savings have been depleted. She has taken out a second mortgage on the house she received as part of her divorce settlement. When that money runs out, McNatt will have to find some other way to make ends meet.

"I'm frightened because I don't know how I'm going to do it," she said. "As they grow, their needs grow. . . . My back is to a wall."

The future would be considerably brighter if the children were covered under the state's foster-care program. As a foster parent, McNatt would receive $950 a month to provide for the children. And unlike AFDC family benefits, foster-care payments would increase as the children grow older.

Additionally, McNatt said, foster parents are viewed differently by society than those who receive AFDC benefits.

"Philosophically, AFDC and foster care are two totally different programs," she said. "One is treated as a handout--that you're less than human because you're not living up to your responsibilities. Foster care is more like, 'Aren't you a wonderful person because you're taking care of these kids.' "

But because McNatt is related to the children, she is ineligible for the foster-care program. Relatives may qualify as foster parents only if the children have been placed in protective custody.

This would have happened if no one had taken responsibility for them after their mother's slaying. By taking in the children immediately, McNatt unwittingly forfeited any chance for them to receive such benefits.

Time Element Crucial

"Had I left the children and not picked them up immediately after Karen was killed, they would have become dependents of the court," McNatt said. "I did what any family would have done--I went and got them immediately. I let them know that grandma was there and loved them."

McNatt is not the only person to be troubled by foster-care eligibility requirements. According to the state Department of Social Services, as many as 40,000 children in California are ineligible for the foster-care program because they are living with relatives.

In March, Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-Salinas) introduced a bill that would have permitted children living with relatives to be eligible for foster care.

"What the state's present policy assumes is that the relatives will feel a moral obligation to take care of the children," Areias said. "That's fine with one child, but what about sibling groups of two, three or four children? It's just not financially possible. In some situations, a grandparent has to choose between two of four children."

Despite uncertainty over the cost of including relatives in the program--estimated by various state agencies anywhere from $28 million to $50 million--AB 1221 encountered little opposition in the Legislature. In June, the Assembly passed the bill, 50 to 26. Three months later, the Senate approved the measure, 37 to 0.

Deukmejian Veto

However, on Sept. 28, Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed the bill. In a letter to the Assembly, Deukmejian explained that standard AFDC benefits are "adequate to provide (children's) basic needs."

"Public funds available for foster-care are limited and higher benefits should be reserved to induce nonrelated persons to become foster parents," Deukmejian wrote in the letter.

"I really don't understand that logic," Areias said. "I don't think that anybody who takes the time to address the facts in this particular situation could be opposed to it. (Deukmejian is) looking strictly at the dollars. . . . It gives the impression that the state is willing to split up a family to save a buck."

McNatt said the current foster-care program, reaffirmed by Deukmejian's veto, discourages relatives from taking responsibility for orphaned children. This is destructive to the family unit, she said, adding that relatives are uniquely qualified to give children an adequate upbringing.

"(Relatives) have a stake in what happens to the children," she said. "They offer a continuation of (the family's) history, and tradition and values. Who's going to tell them what their mommy was like? Who cares about their emotional well-being more than their relatives?"

Areias argued that the additional cost to the state's general fund of providing foster-care benefits to relatives is insignificant compared to the "human cost" of separating children from loved ones. He said he plans to introduce a similar bill during the next legislative session.

"This is a high priority with me," Areias said. "As long as I'm in the Legislature, I'm going to push forward to turn this policy around."

In the meantime, McNatt said she faces a difficult choice. In a true Catch-22 situation, McNatt has been told by a social worker that the only way she can become the children's foster parent is to abandon them. The children would then be placed in the foster-care program, and McNatt could apply to resume custody.

Traumatic Effect

"The children may or may not be returned to me," she said. "Meanwhile, the children would have been traumatized again and so much psychological damage done that it is possible they would never recover."

McNatt said the last 19 months have provided her with a harrowing education about the state of social services in an era of burgeoning need and shrinking budgets.

Like most middle-class Californians, she said she had never thought a great deal about public assistance programs, but assumed that a safety net existed if she ever needed it. But instead, she discovered a system that provides food, housing and therapy for her daughter's killer, but offers little for those left to cope with the crime's effects.

"Why isn't there more assistance for the victims of these kinds of things?" she asked. "Why is it left to individuals to literally fight their way through the social service system? It's a miserly way of the state to get out of responsibility. I think if California doesn't address this now, we're just going to have crisis after crisis."

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