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

And she certainly did not want a social worker trying to sort out what was appropriate.

It seemed she could never let her guard down, that she always had to be vigilant. Word filtered back from Richie's old neighborhood that Barbara had found a job at the Phoenix Public Library. She intended to fight for custody of her children.

Esther found it all overwhelming.
And if the variety of Richie's physical ailments shocked Esther, what did she and her husband actually know about his emotional personality, about his predispositions, his genetics?

Esther and her husband's anxiety over Richie's ability to learn came to a head with the soccer test. All six of their natural children passed easily into America's most demanding universities. Every one of them was an overachiever.

Richie Blandon, on the other hand, flunked the test to become a school-yard soccer referee, ending any hope of a part-time job and flabbergasting Esther and Dr. Goldstein.

They knew Richie did poorly in class; in fact, he scored in the fourth percentile on the Iowa Basic Skills test, meaning that an astonishing 96 percent of schoolchildren in the country did better. They could write off the results to the failure of urban schools.

But how could any child flunk a simple Parks and Recreation department-style quiz?

They worried about what they saw in Richie.
"You have to break everything down for Richie," observed Esther. "He has no work ethic. You write it down, take it step by step. It's all a tabula rasa for him. No one has explained anything to Richie. And he lies too easily."

There were other, more troubling questions.
"Living well keeps people on course," said Dr. Goldstein. "But what if the path becomes bumpy? What will happen if Richie's life becomes bumpy? Will he return to a life of lying, cheating and stealing?"

Esther and her husband wondered if Richie might not regress as a teenager.
"We know that in the immediate family there is a history of drugs, clinical depression and crime," said Esther. "And the scary truth is, we really do not know very much at all about these people. Who are these people?"

The Apartment Complex
Marjorie Cunningham, the manager of an apartment complex in the shadow of City Hall that caters to people on fixed incomes, has helped Barbara Blandon's mother--who is known as Grandmother Annie--get a restraining order to keep her daughter out of the apartments. Annie has had a hip replacement and is afflicted with heart trouble.

"Barbara had no respect for her 82-year-old mother," said Marjorie. "She'd scream and yell at her mother to get money for her habit. You could depend upon when it was Social Security time of month, Barbara would show up."

Over time, the restraining order became a flexible arrangement, brokered by Marjorie. When Barbara was stable, the visitation rules stretched.

Having watched them for two years, nothing about the volatile Blandons surprised Marjorie.

"The kids ran wild," said Marjorie. "Little Richie was very lippy. But a lot of Richie's tough act protected him from getting hurt. He was a child of the streets. They all were. I saw a good kid in Richie. He was not stupid. Those kids want to succeed and hold their heads up.

"Their mother, Barbara? She will tell you today, it's everyone else's fault. She told me, 'These kids are in my way. I don't have a life.'

"Barbara was like a bitch who'd had a litter of pups and walked away. Those kids would have starved without their Grandmother Annie."

For the past couple of years, Annie's modest downtown apartment has sheltered each of Barbara's four kids, off and on. When Barbara's oldest daughter, Helen, left home, she moved in with Grandmother Annie. Today, a 6-month-old infant shares the space. Annie loves her grandchildren and her new great-grandchild, but Barbara mystifies, and sometimes angers, the old lady.

"I didn't even know she was on drugs," said Grandmother Annie. "Then one time, she slapped me. Then I knew. Barbara says none of us love her. Why, that's not true. Barbara just always wanted everything for herself. Everyone else came second. She wanted to be the big one of it."

Barbara certainly was not the center of attention growing up. After all, Annie had 13 kids to watch over.

Grandmother Annie ended up in Phoenix after a lifetime of following the crops with her husband, picking vegetables and fruits across the breadth of America. As of last spring, she knew the whereabouts of only two of her children: One son sat in prison, in Florence, and Barbara wandered the neighborhood.

Together, Marjorie and Grandmother Annie shielded Helen and her infant from Barbara, whose visits were--to put it mildly--unpredictable.

The situation flowed. Sometimes Helen's boyfriend, Alex, spent the night at Grandmother Annie's with his new family; sometimes he was away. Details skulked; reality shifted.

"I don't know the baby's last name," said Grandmother Annie. "I think she took Alex's last name for the baby, but I don't know what Alex's last name is."

The confusion extended back in time. Because Alex and Helen were minors, they needed parental consent for marriage. His folks agreed readily, but Barbara exploded.

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