Early Sex Abuse Hinders Many Women on Welfare

The New York Times
November 28, 1999

MILWAUKEE, Nov. 24 -- Caseworkers rarely ask and clients rarely tell, but growing evidence suggests that disproportionately large numbers of women on welfare were sexually abused as children, a finding that offers new insight into many of the so-called hard cases that are an increasing focus of the national effort to overhaul the welfare system.

While this trail of trauma has received virtually no attention, the frequency of childhood violation helps explain the roots of problems that are more commonly recognized as blocking a successful transition from welfare. Women who were raped or molested as children are more likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs, to suffer disabling battles with anxiety or depression and to become victims of domestic violence.

Here in Milwaukee, which has cut its welfare rolls more than any other city, a hidden history of childhood abuse helps explain the struggles of Mary Rhoden and Tanya Moore, who began the year as two of the most promising students in a motivation class mandated by the state welfare program.

Indeed, without a recognition of the sexual abuse in their early lives, it is difficult to understand how either woman arrived on welfare, or the multiple problems that persist as they leave the rolls. Yet neither even considered raising such an intimate subject with their caseworkers.

"Oh, like they care if I'm a happy person," said Ms. Rhoden, who went as far as to lie on a questionnaire meant to detect depression, which has plagued her for decades. "I just told them what they wanted to hear."

Over the last 10 months, Ms. Rhoden, 35, an animated woman who has spent years on welfare, and Ms. Moore, 25, a quiet former university student on welfare for the first time, each spoke at length about the shadows cast by early abuse.

Both said they were molested by a relative during their grade-school years.

Both said their families refused to believe them, compounding their isolation and dismay. Both contemplated suicide -- Ms. Rhoden made an attempt as a teenager -- and both continue to struggle with storms of depression that interfere with their ability to hold jobs and form relationships.

Recalling the comfort she felt when she read "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Maya Angelou's autobiographical account of being raped as a child, Ms. Moore said she decided to discuss her past so other women would know they were not alone.

"I figure somebody might read it and say, 'Oh, I'm not the only one,' " she said.

For Ms. Rhoden, the urge to talk seems more visceral. When her abuser dies, she said, she plans to stand on his grave and proclaim, "You took my soul when I was young, so the Lord's going to take more than that from you."

By its nature as the ultimate taboo, childhood sexual abuse is hard to quantify at any level of society. Different research techniques produce wildly different estimates. But new evidence suggests it is much more prevalent among women on welfare than previously understood: in some surveys, more than 40 percent say they were sexually abused as children.

While the data are inescapably imprecise, many people who interview welfare families at length, from ethnographers to psychological counselors, say they hear stories of childhood sexual abuse with unsettling regularity.

"It is extremely common," said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has interviewed hundreds of women on welfare. "Nobody in the policy-making community talks about this, and they should."

Likewise, after a decade visiting welfare offices and conducting hundreds of interviews in more than a dozen states, this reporter finds his notebooks filled with accounts of childhood rape and molestation.

The reasons for telling seem as varied as the women themselves.

Some seem eager to shock those they regard as untutored in street life. Pacing the office of a St. Louis housing project eight years ago, Bertha Gilkey, an acclaimed tenant leader, was five minutes into an initial interview when she stopped and exclaimed, "I was raped when I was 3 years old!"

Others talk of sexual abuse only after months, or even years. In 1994, a Chicago woman interviewed at length spoke freely about being severely depressed and addicted to cocaine. But she waited three years before sharing a deeper secret -- being molested as a child by an uncle. "I was scared somebody was going to get killed, because there was a lot of violence around the house," she said.

Some women refer to the abuse in casual asides. Theresa Sledge was one of the first women in the country dropped from welfare after reaching a two-year time limit on benefits. In a rusting trailer outside Pensacola, Fla., two years ago, she spoke for hours before mentioning, with no particular emphasis, the molestation that turned her into a teenage runaway. "I cut my mother's couch up with a pair of scissors because she wouldn't listen to me," she said.

Others describe the abuse as a defining feature of their lives. Between long pauses and deep breaths, Rita Davis of Oregon City struggled to describe the depression that began in adolescence when her father started molesting her. "He used to say, 'You're a worthless piece of garbage; you'll never amount to anything,' " she said.

Ms. Davis was one of 16 welfare recipients interviewed one week in 1997, ostensibly about other obstacles to employment, like drug use, panic attacks and domestic violence. Of them, 11 said they had been sexually abused as children.

The problem seems equally pervasive, and equally hidden, here in Milwaukee, where a famously tough welfare-to-work program has drawn waves of researchers from around the globe.

As Tanya Moore and Mary Rhoden began their motivation class, called the Academy of Excellence, the Wisconsin governor, Tommy G. Thompson, invited a graduate of the academy, Michelle Crawford, to tell the State Legislature about her successful journey to work. In an interview months later, Ms. Crawford added details to her celebrated story: It had taken her two decades to overcome the panic attacks that had begun with childhood molestation.

Out of seven students from the academy who were interviewed at length, four said they had been molested as children, and a fifth said her husband was in prison for raping her daughter.

"I've been going in circles," said Ms. Rhoden, surveying two decades of fight and flight that began when she ran away from home at 13. "People say you've got to reach back in your past and move on. Easier said than done."

The Evidence
Poverty and Abuse, A Compounded Risk

Childhood sexual abuse is not confined to the poor, of course. Most researchers say it is more common at all income levels than generally understood. But welfare and sexual abuse are entwined in at least two ways.

Children who grow up poor, especially those with unmarried mothers, face an increased risk of being abused, most scholars say. They are more likely to live in dangerous neighborhoods or with adults impaired by alcohol or drugs.

In single-parent families, they are also more likely to be around unrelated men (like their mothers' boyfriends), increasing the pool of potential abusers. And they have one fewer parent to protect them from risks of any sort.

Abused children, in turn, are more likely to have problems that could lead them to welfare as adults. Sexually abused girls, for instance, are more likely to become teenage mothers. Teenage mothers are more likely to drop out of school. Dropouts, in turn, face reduced job prospects.

And once on welfare, those whose abuse has caused other problems that researchers call common -- like addiction, depression or relationships with violent men -- have a harder time leaving the rolls through stable jobs or marriages.

Many, if not most, victims of abuse avoid this downward spiral, recovering to lead productive and fulfilling lives. But abused children who are also poor face compounded risks, because they often have other, unrelated problems and fewer people to help.

"A child from a deprived background is more likely to experience a lasting impact," said David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire and a leading authority on child sexual abuse.

Over the last decade, six surveys of welfare recipients have produced estimates of sexual abuse that are both diverse and strikingly high. In Paterson, N.J., 24 percent of the recipients surveyed said they had been sexually abused as children. The figure was 25 percent in Michigan, 28 percent in Chicago, 38 percent in Washington State, 41 percent in Utah and 42 percent in Worcester, Mass.

It is difficult to make a precise comparison with the general population, because estimates about the extent of the problem there also vary widely. In 1994, Mr. Finkelhor reviewed 19 studies of the general population. Of them, the median study estimated that 18 percent of female adults had been sexually abused as children.

Mr. Finkelhor said most experts now accepted a slightly higher estimate for the general population, from 20 percent to 25 percent. By contrast, the median figure in the welfare studies was 33 percent.

Perhaps the cleanest comparison comes from the University of Michigan, where researchers in 1997 asked welfare recipients the same questions used in a national study, the National Co-Morbidity Survey. In the national survey 12 percent of adult women said they had been sexually abused as children. When the same question was put to 753 welfare recipients, the figure was 25 percent.

While children are famously resilient, the anodyne phrase "sexual abuse" does not fully convey the mix of fear and betrayal an abused girl may feel, especially because the abuser is typically someone she knows and should be able to trust -- a cousin, an uncle, her mother's boyfriend.

"There's nothing I can think of that so betrays the experience of safety and care and relationship," said Peter Fraenkel, a clinical psychologist who teaches at City College in New York: " 'The very person who was supposed to protect me, betrayed me.' "

Children whose parents support them heal quickest, he said. But when the victim's mother sides with the abuser, he said, "you're talking about multiple trauma."

Inside the welfare office, few women present symptoms as striking as that of Ms. Angelou, who became mute after her rape. Indeed, Bill Curcio spent 20 years as a caseworker in Paterson without suspecting that abuse was a problem. "No one revealed it to me -- ever," he said. But when he began teaching a course to prepare women for the workplace, the subject arose constantly. "I didn't realize how much of it there was -- rape, sexual abuse, molestation," he said.

Likewise, at YW Works, a private agency that helps run the Milwaukee welfare program, clients almost never discuss abuse with their main caseworker. (Those caseworkers rarely have social work degrees, and their function is more administrative, enrolling clients in work programs and checking their participation.) But Anne Paczesny, who recently left her job as a therapist at YW Works, said that as many as half the clients referred to her for other problems had raised the issue of sexual abuse. "They're seeking help for alcoholism, or domestic violence or just painfully low self-esteem," she said. "You'd be surprised how many implications it has."

At Meta House, a drug treatment center in Milwaukee, 85 percent of the women who are residents say they were sexually abused. "My experience with the welfare agencies is they're just getting to these issues now," said Francine Feinberg, the center's director. "Quite frankly, I don't think they were prepared for this."

Mary Rhoden
A Defiant Life With Dangerous Men

First impressions of Mary Rhoden yield no hint of her difficult past. Her easy charm led a boyfriend to call her "the happy-go-luckiest girl in the world." If the Academy of Excellence awarded grades, she would have graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

"Excellent student!" her instructors wrote. "Very positive attitude."

Ms. Rhoden says that just shows how little the system knows her. "I'm just as paranoid as I-don't-know-what," she said.

Ms. Rhoden has spent decades rebelling against anyone in authority -- the relative who molested her, the employers who hired her and the social workers who have offered to help. She is raising five children on an ever-shifting mixture of boyfriends, welfare and jobs. But the underlying pattern persists: conflict, defiance and flight. "I don't take no bull off of nobody," she said.

Her mother and stepfather were migrant farm workers who settled in Milwaukee. Between them there were 11 children in the house. They both liked to drink. Relatives came and went, and about the time Ms. Rhoden was starting school, one began grabbing her between her legs and threatening to hurt her if she told. Eventually she did tell, she said, but her mother shrugged it off.

"She'd say, 'He probably didn't mean nothing like that,' " she said.

"I'd be like, 'Whatever -- everybody around here is whacked!' "

For years, Ms. Rhoden and her sisters slept together, huddled for protection. She fled at 13, and spent months on the street before entering foster care. At 17, she tried to kill herself with an overdose of Valium, and she still alternates between troughs of shame and outbursts of anger.

"You blame yourself," she said. "I felt like I should have spoken out more."

Speaking out is now a habit, and her defiant streak brings chronic conflicts on the job. She was fired as a counselor in a program for teenagers after quarreling with her supervisor. ("Me and her got into a confrontation.") She walked off a job as a hotel maid because she disliked the boss. ("I told him where to go.") She left a clerical job because she resented others making more than she did. ("I'm like, 'Forget you.' It wasn't a good attitude to have, but that's me for you.")

A second troubling legacy of the abuse is her relationships with men. Though Ms. Rhoden began her life fleeing one violent man, she has been repeatedly drawn to others. Psychologists call this a common pattern among survivors of abuse, one less contradictory than it may seem.

Their self-image shattered, some are not subconsciously convinced they are worthy of protection. Others, knowing only violence, miss the danger signs. Still others may be searching for what Mr. Fraenkel, the New York psychologist, calls a "corrective emotional experience," in which the woman re-creates a similar relationship, hoping to impose a happier ending.

Ms. Rhoden offers parallel explanations: a need for money and a desire to feel loved. "I've been looking for love in all the wrong places, like the song says," she said.

As a teenager she married a man still in prison for armed robbery. Then broke, bruised and lonely after her marriage failed, she moved in with another ex-convict. He told her he had done something he ought to explain, but Ms. Rhoden never asked for details. "I trusted him enough to know it was nothing that would be detrimental to me and my kids, " she said. Still, hearing him walk through the house at night she would race to the room where her four young daughters slept, wanting assurance they had not been touched. Court records disclose what he never explained: he had raped a woman at gunpoint.

"That's kind of weird," Ms. Rhoden said, quietly mulling the news. "You think you know somebody and you don't."

The abuse, the depression, the troubled men -- the real issues in Ms. Rhoden's life remained hidden from the welfare office. From behind their desks, her caseworkers encountered a puzzle: a talented yet uncooperative woman, charming then suddenly hostile. "I think the lady has a lot of potential," said Hortensia Sanchez, her most recent caseworker, "but to tell you the truth, I couldn't tell you what her barriers and her issues are.

"We didn't get that far."

Ms. Rhoden certainly did not make things easy. Faced with Wisconsin's work rules, which require every recipient to join a work program, she appeared just often enough to continue a trickle of cash, while her boyfriend paid the bills. "I'm not going to lie to you -- I used to play the system," she said. Over the last year alone, her absences cost her $3,700, about half her welfare income.

In theory, such penalties are intended to imbue a work ethic. In Ms. Rhoden's case, they seemed to reinforce a boyfriend ethic, keeping her tied to a fraying relationship that was erupting in constant quarrels.

Last spring her boyfriend went back to jail for failing to keep in touch with his probation officer, and Ms. Rhoden has been back on the run. She got a job that closed her welfare case. She lost the job and was evicted. She got another job, as a hotel clerk, though she is once more unhappy with the work.

Needing money, she also got another boyfriend, with another violent past -- including an arrest for attempted murder and convictions for beating a girlfriend and selling drugs. (In a recent interview, he said the attempted-murder charge was dropped when the victim failed to testify, but he acknowledged having stabbed him: "I pulled out my knife and went to work on him.")

Their house is crowded, uncomfortably so. Hearing footsteps in the night not long ago, Ms. Rhoden once again raced to her daughters' room.

All was quiet.

"He's a real nice guy, don't get me wrong," she said. "I just don't want my daughters to grow up someday and say, 'You put us in the position for something to happen.' I don't want to hear that."

Tanya Moore
A Life of Depression And Withdrawal

While Ms. Rhoden answered her abuse by fleeing to the streets, Tanya Moore took flight in a different direction, hiding behind walls of hostility and depression she is just beginning to recognize.

"I try not to be so negative all the time," Ms. Moore said, "but I usually am."

On the surface they are utterly different people. Ms. Rhoden skates by on surface charm; Ms. Moore hunkers down behind glares. Ms. Rhoden seeks solace in constant companions; Ms. Moore isolates herself. While Ms. Rhoden left school in the ninth grade, Ms. Moore finished nearly three years of college, at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.

But if the details differ, the resulting instability has been the same. Like Ms. Rhoden, Ms. Moore has collided with virtually all her employers.

"I have a hard time trusting people, particularly authority figures," she said. And like Ms. Rhoden, she never considered telling her caseworker the real story behind her journey to welfare. "I felt so uncomfortable," she said.

Ms. Rhoden disclosed the abuse to a reporter the first day they met. But Ms. Moore waited many months, raising the issue only after attending a rally of women victimized by violence. She said the presence of hundreds of other "everyday people, like you see in the streets, made me think, O.K., I'm not the only one."

While she was not raised in poverty, her family had other problems. Her stepfather drank, and Ms. Moore has been periodically estranged from both her mother and her father. The incidents of abuse were episodic, not chronic like Ms. Rhoden's, and Ms. Moore said they were not the only source of her depression. But inside her family her struggles are greeted with little sympathy.

"If somebody did something to you, forgive them," her mother said in a recent interview. "Go and get over it."

A breakthrough of sorts began in college, with a friend who recognized familiar signs of isolation and distrust. "That was my first thought -- childhood sexual abuse," said the friend, Stephany Johnson, who was in counseling herself for depression that began when she was raped at age 11. Though Ms. Moore had spent years fantasizing about cutting her wrists, her friend's matter-of-fact observation -- "You're depressed" -- left her stunned. "I would sleep all day, but I didn't know I was depressed," she said. She briefly sought counseling but abandoned it, as she has on subsequent occasions.

Unable to control her depression, Ms. Moore left college three years ago and returned to Milwaukee, where her life entered a downward spiral. She raced through a half-dozen low-paying jobs.

She had a romance with a co-worker and became pregnant. Last year, she moved into a home for single mothers run by Catholic nuns, gave birth to a daughter and went on welfare.

In statistical terms, like Ms. Rhoden, she would be counted a welfare success. Refusing to join the work program -- "working for a welfare check was just too insulting" -- she found a part-time job on her own, as a clerk in a program intended to slow the spread of AIDS. But she remains poor (she earns $200 a week), depressed and constantly buffeted by feelings of betrayal.

Earlier this year, she was applauding the nuns' social conscience. Then they quarreled, the nuns asked her to leave, and she now calls them "money hungry" and "racist." Just a few weeks ago, Ms. Moore lauded her job for valuing "my intelligence and my ideas." Then a manager she admired was dismissed, and she decided, "I don't have a future there."

As a former psychology major, she knows she needs help. After attending the rally, she called her Medicaid health plan and made a new counseling appointment. "It's something I've got to deal with, though I really don't want to," she said. "It's just too painful."

Copyright © 1999 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.






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