At 16, Sara’s already run from poor alcoholic parents, given birth, been beat up by her baby’s father, run away again and bottomed out on welfare.
Now the state is asking her to make a decision: leave her friend’s house and return home, find a scarce bed in a teen pregnancy shelter or lose welfare, the sole source of income for her and 3-month-old Tyson.
“What would you do?” she asked, nervously flicking a cigarette.
Her hand is being forced by strict new welfare laws aimed at reducing teen pregnancy and cutting the welfare rolls.
Sara and about 1,000 other teen mothers statewide must live in an “appropriate living condition” by Aug. 1 or be cut off from the dole.
The “appropriate living condition” requirement is a small provision in sweeping welfare reform legislation. But it’s an important part of a campaign to reduce births to teenage mothers by a third within a decade.
The campaign makes financial sense, according to analysts. Many long-term welfare recipients got on welfare as teen mothers, according to the Welfare Information Network, a nonpartisan research group.
Lawmakers hope stricter rules will keep teen moms from having a second child, divert them back home and repair nuclear families.
But enforcing the requirement leads to difficult decisions that are being made in nearly every state.
In Washington, “appropriate” is defined as a bed at their parents’ home, in a licensed shelter or, in some cases, with a responsible family member.
Marriage is an option for some teen moms, as long as the relationship doesn’t meet the definition of statutory rape.
Many girls will be told to return home, “even if conditions there aren’t the best,” said Terry Covey, an administrator for the Spokane office of the Department of Social and Health Services.
“I don’t believe we are going to force kids to go back to unhealthy homes,” said Rachael Langan, head of the DSHS family services office. “We don’t want to endanger kids. … But the intent of the law is to have teens living with their parents.”
About five of every 100 Spokane County girls ages 15-17 give birth each year. About 1,000 girls state-wide are having their living conditions reviewed, according to the DSHS.
The requirement is not new, but, with approval of state welfare reform in April, sanctions for disobeying are tougher. The definition of “appropriate living conditions” previously was vague, leaving big loopholes.
Now, if teen mothers refuse to comply, they will be cut off and benefits for their children will go to another family member or friend to help make sure the money is spent on the child, said Carl McMinimy, a DSHS deputy regional administrator.
Mothers under 18 also must attend school or risk losing the $440 monthly check.
“This one’s been pretty open and shut,” McMinimy said. “It doesn’t come up as often as you’d think it would.”
Several teen welfare mothers who had been living with a boyfriend said they were told recently to move immediately.
Where they should go is unclear. McMinimy suggests a family member.
That doesn’t always work, said Marilee Roloff, director of Volunteers of America’s Crosswalk, a shelter for homeless teens. Some teens run away because home life is not healthy for them, let alone an infant, she said.
Once girls learn their options, Roloff fears abortions will rise.
Nyla Fritz, a Vista volunteer studying the impacts of welfare reform on teen mothers, agrees. “I don’t think they are taking into account the girls that have no home to go to,” said Fritz of Moses Lake.
If family is not available, teen mothers have few options. There are just six beds at the area’s only shelter for teen mothers, the VOA-run Alexandria’s House.
Some girls wait up to six months to get in. One day last week - as word about the “appropriate living condition” requirement reached the social service community - Alexandria’s House received requests from 10 girls.
“I think some would rather go live on the streets or in a shelter than return home,” said Fritz, a recent graduate of Whitworth College.
Surprisingly, Patsy, a 16-year-old mother, welcomes the changes, echoing many conservative politicians who lambast teen moms.
“You can’t just sit there on your butt and wait for a check to come on the first of the month,” said Patsy, who declined to give her last name.
But Patsy also echoes her social worker’s worst fear: teen mothers will return to bad situations at home or with an abusive boyfriend.
“It’s going to really make girls not using protection think,” she said.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NUMBERS IN SPOKANE About five of every 100 Spokane County girls ages 15-17 give birth each year.
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