Welfare reform hits home

Robin Prats says her son Scotty requires her care around the clock. Prats also has her hands full with her active 4-year-old daughter, Zeeanna. - Ken George
Robin Prats says her son Scotty requires her care around the clock. Prats also has her hands full with her active 4-year-old daughter, Zeeanna.
— image credit: Ken George

A state policy debate about welfare reform may seem theoretical, but the potential human impact is evident in the eyes of an Oak Harbor welfare mom caring for her severely disabled son.

In a move that Rep. Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor, said puts the entire state welfare system in jeopardy, Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, last week eliminated the five-year maximum time limit on the collection of welfare benefits.

However, a key advisor to Locke said that Sehlin's assessment is not entirely accurate.

In the past four years, Sehlin said, reform has reduced welfare rolls by 45 percent and has helped more than 114,000 Washingtonians find work.

Sehlin said Locke’s repeal of the time limit puts the entire state welfare system in jeopardy by allowing people to receive benefits when they shouldn’t be receiving, taking funding away from those truly in need.

But only people who should remain on welfare will be on welfare, said Ken Miller, Locke’s policy advisor on welfare reform. There are some families that have a valid reason not to go back to work, Miller said, and these families would be devastated by the loss of benefits at the end of the five-year term.

Other recipients capable of working will be expected to make progress toward getting off welfare, by holding a job and/or going to school. Otherwise, their benefits will be eliminated.

A third group of people, Miller said, include those who don’t have valid reasons for remaining on welfare and are not making progress toward getting off of it. They are “simply not going to see any money,” Miller said.

Welfare reform in Washington state went into effect in 1997 in an effort to get able-bodied people capable of working into jobs and off welfare.

Klaire Harry, administrator of the Oak Harbor Community Services Center of the Department of Social and Health Services, agrees with Miller’s assessment.

“You have to keep moving forward to keep getting benefits,” Harry said, unless a family has a valid reason for continuing on the welfare system.

One such family lives in Oak Harbor.

Robin Prats is a single mother of a severely handicapped 10-year-old boy as well as a ”normal” four-year-old girl.

Prats’ son, Scottie, was born healthy in March 1991, but contracted a virus at just three months old. The boy had been on life support and not expected to recover.

“We pulled the plug on him on June 11, 1991,” Prats said this week. But, the baby’s heartbeat got stronger and stronger, and soon the medical team advised Prats that they needed to hook Scottie back up to life-assisting machinery. The baby was alive and showed no signs of an imminent demise. He lived.

However, Scottie is now developmentally delayed, wheelchair bound, blind, unable to speak, unable to feed or dress himself, and he must wear diapers. Additionally, the boy suffers from seizures, Prats said.

Scottie’s father has “shunned” the child, Prats said, and he is remarried with “normal” children. He has not responded to her past attempts to contact him.

Prats is a hairdresser and she has twice gone back to work during Scottie’s lifetime. Both times the boy wound up in the hospital. Not having his mother around was more than the boy could bear, Prats said. Also Scottie’s immune system isn’t strong and he tends to get sick easily when he is in a group care setting. Additionally, it is difficult, Prats said, to find appropriately trained babysitters for Scottie.

“I know I don’t want to be on the state for a long time,” Prats said. “But Scottie is a 24-hour care child. I’ve done it all his life and I’ve managed so far.”

Prats has received welfare for 10 years, and would be cut off without the governor’s order issued last week.

Between state assistance, food stamps and Supplemental Security Income that Scottie receives, Prats manages to make ends meet. The loss of welfare benefits would be devastating.

Yet, Prats also understand the need for welfare reform.

“I see other people abuse the state and it does affect Scottie and I. They do stuff to mess things up for Scottie and I,” Prats said.

Given a brief overview of Prats’ circumstances, Sehlin agreed that her family’s collection of benefits “sounds very legitimate.” Sehlin said he does not want to take benefits away from anyone truly in need.

“There is an existing law under which DSHS can exempt those kind of people,” Sehlin said.

His concern, Sehlin said, is that in the state’s current fiscally-trying times, money needs to be used in more conservative ways, to ensure that it will be there for those that really need it.

“We need to conserve our resources as much as possible so it’s there for the folks that really need it,” Sehlin said. “This is not the time to be expanding and making (programs) more generous”

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