Family Affairs

A professional Phoenix woman wanted to help one poor, "at risk" family. It was the type of private initiative that both political parties say will ease the harsh impacts of welfare reform. Her three-year experiment in personal responsibility rescued an 1

"It's like an armed camp," said Esther. "CPS worried about the kids' safety but no one cared whether or not they were happy, and, obviously, they weren't. If you ever go inside of this place, like I did, you'd wonder why you take kids away from drug addicts only to abandon them to this warehouse. It was dreadful. The guards were drunk, and the LPNs I saw were stupid." (The state has since severed its contract with Community Justice.)

On top of everything, Richie caught all the blame for the state's intervention in his family's life.

His brother and his sister, as well as his mother, blamed the boy for CPS' move. Richie now lived in a nice home, they noticed, while everyone else lived in hell.

Actually, Richie's own circumstances left him lukewarm.
He told Esther: "I don't mind living with you; it don't bother me."
His tepid response crushed Esther.
"He was so unhappy."

Who Are These People?
The agony of Richie and his family throbbed like a migraine inside Esther's head, and her own family's resistance demoralized the woman. Though she seldom expressed despair, her insides were a fog bank of misgivings. In the dreariest moments, she even accepted blame for the destruction of Richie's family.

"I just think I might have made things worse. There is a principle in physics: When you observe something, you change it.

"I think I had a role in the family's disintegration. By getting Barbara a job, I threw them over the edge. Lennie killed himself."

Esther Gould had come to realize that she had been guilty of an arrogance and ignorance usually found only in green, reservation missionaries.

"At the time, if you can believe it, I thought, 'Oh, good. He's out of the way. Now she can work, learn computers, go to school and get a job at Salt River Project.' I thought he was the only one on drugs.

"Barbara blames herself, but I had a hand in this. He was depressed that she was getting on with her life."

In reality, the afflictions that ate at the core of the Blandon family--the drug addiction, the violence, the poverty--were so intricate and interconnected, they simply did not yield to the slapdash, "Okay, I've got the list of goals written on my Daytimer" style that had been Esther's approach since her random days at Phoenix College.

"God, I was so naive," said Esther. "It was like I had a business plan for Barbara. In their old life, the family had each other. Now everyone has stress and loss. We think it's a better life. Do they? I stepped into their lives thinking I knew what was best for them. Now, I see Richie depressed, Helen sullen, Tabatha angry and John cut off.

"Maybe they were happier with the chaos they knew, rather than this alien tranquillity."

Before this crisis, Esther had admitted to only two fears: poor health and financial failure. Now, the sheer cost of little Richie's needs climbed dramatically, at the same time that a vivid personal tableau played out for Esther, reinforcing her fiscal paranoia.

She was forced to move her mother, who had Alzheimer's disease and was in a near-vegetative state, from Florida to Arizona, where Esther confined the elderly woman in a nursing home. Esther watched with horror as her parents' entire estate was wiped out by the expense of caring for her mother. Each time she visited her mother at Kivel nursing home, Esther was reminded how little she herself had put away for her own retirement.

She'd already faced bankruptcy. Was it possible, Esther worried, that she'd spend her old age like her own mother, penniless, because she had not saved enough?

So money was a factor when Esther decided to apply for state certification as a foster parent, instead of remaining a temporary, legal guardian. As a foster parent, she would qualify for $450 a month in state subsidies, as well as $87 a month from Social Security, targeted at care for Richie.

But becoming a foster parent took time; in the interim, the boy needed immediate medical attention. Esther lined Richie up with the professional help he'd never had: counselors, doctors, after-school tutors, a psychiatrist, a dentist and an ophthalmologist.

For the first time in his life, Richie had medication to combat the depression that coursed through the Blandon family.

Richie had never visited a dentist and needed braces, which the state paid for.

Eye exams showed that Richie had a degenerative vision condition. Because it had never been treated, he saw clearly with only one eye.

After the fourth pair of glasses were broken in one month during fights at the public school, Esther transferred Richie to a charter school that focused on computers.

Esther wondered about the depths of her own emotional resources as every facet of her new responsibilities crowded her.

The littlest things--hugs, for instance--caused concern.
"He doesn't hug me," worried Esther. "I don't hug him. I don't know how you necessarily physically treat a 13-year-old boy. I'm not sure if they have crushes on an older woman."

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