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Caught in the web of Poverty

The early years of Lennette’s marriage made it nearly impossible for her even to consider a job.

She and Clair had four children in five years. The first, Diana, was born with a hole in her heart. At 15 months, she suffered a stroke that left her mentally retarded. She was followed by Stephanie, Edward and Martan, all born on Medicaid.

The welfare payments and Diana’s Social Security check, which the family received because of her retardation, sustained them as Clair worked intermittently, continued drinking and occasionally crashed the family cars.

When Clair was drunk, he beat Lennette and sometimes the children. In October 1986, when Edward was 2 months old, Clair came home drunk and punched Lennette in the face, blackening her eye and bloodying her nose. She fell backward and struck her head on a steel sink.

That time, she left. She went to a women’s shelter and got a Protection From Abuse order against Clair, forbidding him from contacting her or the children. She called the county child welfare agency, which took the two girls.

Despite all that, Lennette and Clair quickly reconciled. Lennette needed his help. She was just 20, without a proper education and with no work experience, and she was responsible for three children. And Clair had some redeeming qualities. While at his uncle’s house in Melcroft one day, he smelled smoke. The little house next door was on fire. He ran inside to help an elderly couple get out.

It took Lennette and Clair eight months to get their girls back from foster care. The girls returned to foster care two more times, in 1987 and 1988, when child-care workers discovered that Diana had unexplained burns and Stephanie had bruises she blamed on beatings.

Edward did not have bruises or burns and spent very little time in foster care, but by the time he was 6, he was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. He had chased Lennette with a butcher knife and spent a month in Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. The family began receiving Social Security disability payments for him, too.

Sometimes Clair would swear off alcohol and go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but it wouldn’t last.

One evening eight years ago, Lennette found him lying in the road near their house and called an ambulance. Clair nearly died from alcohol poisoning.

That was enough. He signed himself into a residential rehabilitation center. He stayed 34 days. Then he went to counseling every other week for six months. Medicaid paid. He’s been clean ever since.

Sobriety didn’t free Clair to work steadily, though. Even off the alcohol, he flew into rages. Anything could set him off. When he would lose his temper on the job, he was quickly fired. He is, as he puts it, "nuts." Two years ago, he persuaded Social Security that he was sufficiently disturbed to get disability payments.

So each month, Lennette gets three Social Security checks, at $511 each, plus $365 in welfare cash assistance and about $50 in food stamps, to support her family of six. It’s about $1,900 a month, or roughly $11 a person a day.

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