Los Angeles Times Interview : Peter Digre : Trying to Protect Children Enmeshed in the Welfare-Reform Plans

Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times

If Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolution prevail, Aid to Families with Dependent Children will no longer guarantee a welfare check to every poor family who needs help. State governments will determine who gets what, though Washington would no longer require governors to split the welfare bill.

Under the House-proposed rules, most legal immigrants need not apply. Welfare mothers who have additional children better make do with what they have. Young teen mothers, under the age of 18, would get no cash benefits to provide for their babies. Those who did get aid would have two years to get off the dole. They could reapply, but House Republicans would set a lifetime eligibility of five years--not long enough to get a child out of grade school.

What would happen to those kids? Peter Digre, Los Angeles County director of Children's Services, makes dire predictions that thousands of little welfare orphans will flood foster homes. He's worried because he runs the local foster-care and child-protective services, which could become modern-day poorhouses if Washington throws millions off welfare.

If the House bill becomes law, Digre expects to see an explosion of neglect and child abuse--since both rise when parents lose jobs or benefits. But he isn't counting on Washington to cough up an extra dime. House Republicans plan to save the federal government more than $100 billion over seven years while ending long-term dependency on welfare and reducing out-of-wedlock births.

Digre would solve these daunting social problems with jobs, education and training as well as more day-care--so parents can work. He endorses a time limit on welfare--but not if it leaves children out in the cold.

A social worker by training, Digre, 50, holds a doctorate in divinity. Long on compassion, which seems in short supply these days in Washington, he has been to Congress to plead the case of poor youngsters. He prefers the Senate bill--but only as the lesser of two evils.

Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Bob Dole, would pare federal spending on welfare by $70 billion over seven years, but would require states to continue spending 80% of what they spent last year on welfare. Their bill would also make welfare optional, set a deadline on the dole, limit benefits to immigrants and give a lot of power to the states. Tempered by moderate Republicans, the Senate bill also would allow states to determine if pregnant welfare mothers should get additional benefits for the new baby, and if teen moms should get AFDC checks.

Is compromise possible? That could depend on presidential politics. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) has rallied hard-line Senate conservatives to the House position, while Dole, the GOP front-runner, has made room for somewhat more moderate views. If a House-Senate conference committee can find common ground, President Bill Clinton could still veto the bill. That would stall welfare reform--and perhaps buy Digre more time--but not for long.

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Question: What impact will welfare reform have on the children you serve?

Answer: Inevitably, no matter how it comes out, over the course of anywhere from immediately to five years, millions and millions of children are going to be losing their economic assistance. First of all, children are going to be dropped because they hit the time limits, either two years or five years. Secondly, children are going to be dropped because they are not able to have a paternity determination on the father. Third, many will be dropped because they are legal immigrants . . . .

Q: How will this affect Los Angeles?

A: We have about 650,000 children on AFDC in Los Angeles [County]. Our projections are, over a period of time, somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 or 350,000 children are going to lose their economic assistance . . . . When a family's economic assistance is curtailed, people start to get their utilities cut off. They can't pay their rent so they are forced from their housing and end up homeless.

As people go into that downward spiral from poverty to destitution, we start to see an increase in physical abuse. When AFDC was cut about 6% in 1992, in the year after that we saw a bump of about 10% more kids in the child welfare system, and about 20% more child abuse reported . . . . As families come under increased stress, they become more desperate--and they become more violent.

So we saw a big jump in physical abuse directed at children.

As families are unable to provide the necessities for their children, namely food, clothing and shelter, we see a lot of children being reported for neglect. They don't have food. They don't have a place to live. They don't have medical care. They don't have adequate clothing . . . . As families hit on this downward spiral, we see a lot more kids in the foster-care system.

Q: How many children are currently under the protection of the county?

A: About 60,000 today.

Q: Do those children receive welfare?

A: The way it works, when a child would be eligible for AFDC, the federal government pays about half the cost of their care when they end up in the child-welfare system . . . .

The House version of welfare reform would totally eliminate the concept that children are entitled to be protected . . . . We could have a rapidly growing foster-care and child-protection system and no means to pay for their care because the federal money, which is child specific, is eliminated.

Q: How drastic could this be?

A: . . . With about 300,000 to 340,00 kids being eliminated from AFDC over a few years period in Los Angeles. If only one out of 20 of those kids ended up in the child-protection system, we'd pick up somewhere in the vicinity of $185 million in new costs to take care of them. If our federal money was in a block grant and capped, and only growing in small increments, we'd have no way to take care of them. What we'd have to do is eliminate other programs to pay for foster care.

Q: What other programs?

A: To pay for that $185 million, I'd have to lay off every child protection worker in our system to pay for foster care, if we got into that kind of situation. And, that's if only one of 20 ended up in the child welfare system.

Q: How would the Senate bill treat these children?

A: The Senate bill maintains child protection as a child specific entitlement, and maintains the legal protections for children . . . .

We're working very hard to support the Senate version and very hard to explain the horrendous problems in the House version. It's important to say, though, that both the Senate and the House version are going to drastically curtail economic assistance to children. By the time this thing is passed, it's going to be a different world in terms of the economic well-being of millions of children. But what the Senate version does is at least preserve the concept that individual children are entitled to be protected when they are abused or neglected.

Q: Do you favor a family cap on welfare benefits?

A: No. The way a family cap works, in effect, if a child should be born [to a family receiving welfare] they would not receive [additional] assistance. Therefore, that child is punished for the acts of their parents. That's a dangerous policy. That's another contributing factor that makes families have less wherewithal to take care of kids, and increases the likelihood the children will end up in foster care being raised by the government.

Q: Do you know of families who have reclaimed their children?

A: A very large percentage of families do reclaim their children . . . probably about half of all the kids we see. Their parents are able to resolve the problem, whatever it is, through education, through training, through employment opportunities, through licking an addiction and other things, and get their children back . . . .

A large number of parents need to get economically stabilized . . . . This is why this whole issue of economic assistance is so absolutely basic . . . . They need to have an AFDC check. They need to have the opportunity to participate in a (state workfare) program like GAIN. They need day care so they can work. They need to have the ability to sign a lease so the landlord knows there is income there to pay the rent. They need to have a refrigerator to keep food close for kids.

It's hard to imagine how you reunify families, and how you preserve families in an environment where lots of people are ineligible for the most basic kinds of economic assistance and employment training opportunities . . . .

Q: Does the anti-immigrant fervor influence this debate?

A: Both pieces of legislation take very strong positions regarding the curtailing of economic benefits . . . .

In our experience, with our Department of Children and Family Services, we see a very small proportion of immigrants' children coming into the child welfare system. It's going to be very important to see what kind of change there is.

Q: Do you make a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants?

A: We see a tiny, tiny number of illegal immigrants. The number would be maybe a couple hundred a year--a very small number in terms of our overall population. If you took all immigrant groups, it would be a little bigger than that but it would still be a relatively modest amount, maybe 10% of our total population.

Q: What accounts for that?

A: Immigrants, in our experience, have a very high priority on family, and keeping their families intact, and taking care of their kids.

Q: Is the system operating at full capacity? Is there room for more children?

A: The system is operating at over-capacity. Right now, if you look at the caseloads of our staff, they are probably on average of about 20% higher than they should be. We have more children that we are responsible for then really this system was designed to be responsible for . . . .

Q: Is the number of children who need this care rising?

A: . . . Our work is responsive to the economy. Unemployment went up in L.A. in the '90s, and then it started to flatten out, and now it's going down a little bit. That's what happened to our child abuse reporting, too. It followed exactly the same line. It went up, and then it started to flatten out.

Right now, as the economy improves a bit, we're seeing the child abuse reporting definitely flatten out. We're not seeing growth right now, but we've learned from past experience, that whatever undermines the economic well-being of families immediately translates into increased child abuse and neglect, and increased children in the child protection system and increased children in the foster-care system, which is why we are so terribly concerned about the impact of these welfare reform initiatives.

Q: Do you like anything on the table now in Washington?

A: I like the Senate version recognizing there is need for an ultimate safety net for children . . . . Part of what gets eliminated in the House version is some basic legal protections.

Adoption assistance, for families who adopt medically complex children, . . . say spina bifida, or when a child needs special care such as braces . . . . That subsidy is no longer guaranteed . . . . Currently, that's a guarantee of the state and federal government. That family will be entitled to receive a subsidy. Under the House version, that concept of an individual entitlement to adoption assistance is eliminated.

Q: Can you give me another example?

A: The whole concept of protecting kids by getting them into foster care when their families are dangerous. The Senate preserves the concept that care for a child in a foster care situation must be available to that child. The House version eliminates the concept of foster care as an entitlement for that child.

Something else that is important: Every year we emancipate about 800 kids to total independence at age 18, which in our society, our economy is a near impossibility. I'm 50 years old--and my mother still has a room for me in her house that I could go to before I become homeless. Here, we take kids who have grown up without parents, without a fallback position and we say you've got to become totally independent at age 18. We have a relatively small program targeting those kids called the independent living program. It's a very modest amount of money. In the House version, the independent living program is eliminated as a program, and rolled up into a block grant.

. . . what the House version does is seriously eliminate the basic legal structure that assures that kids are safe, and the federal oversight to make sure the states are following this legal structure . . . . On the Senate side, there is strong support for keeping individual assurance of a safety net in place for children.*

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