Sandy Butler, University of Maine, and Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine
Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on December 26, 2014.
For five years, Josie had been abused and threatened by the father of her three young children. She knew she had to get out.
So, two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, Josie and her children left behind their life, nearly all their personal belongings and their home state to escape violence in their home. They took advantage of a brief window of opportunity — the father’s incarceration after a violent New Year’s Eve incident — to make their move to the Bangor area.
“Spruce Run [a domestic violence program in Bangor] had an opening, but also the most opportunity,” said Josie.
Unlike many domestic violence shelters, Spruce Run doesn’t limit its clients to a 30-day stay. Plus, the agency helps clients find transitional housing after their shelter stay.
“Moving to another state with my children with no supports or family or financial stability, I probably would have been homeless in the streets within 30 days,” she said.
Today, Josie and her children are in a Section 8-subsidized apartment, which she supports with her full-time housekeeping job at a local hospital. Josie has had no contact with her children’s father in the two years since she left. (Josie’s real name is not being used out of concern for her safety.)
“He had a lot of mental health problems,” Josie said. “I thought I could save him, and I guess I wanted to keep my family together. I was raised that if you had children with somebody, you stayed with them.”
Josie had tried to leave before, but it was at those times that he became particularly violent.
“If I got fed up and I didn’t want to be with him anymore,” she said, “he’d say, ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to strangle you.’ And he would do things to hurt me. It was bad. It was physical and sexual abuse for all those years.”
Abuse behind, challenges ahead
Josie is now free of that nightmare, but her life as a low-income single mother is far from easy. She says she has encountered prejudice and judgmental attitudes in her effort to get on her feet and take care of her children, but also extreme kindness and generosity.
When she first arrived in Maine, she applied for assistance at the Department of Health and Human Services. That day was frustrating and infuriating.
“The woman said to me, ‘Did you move here for the benefits?’ and I said, ‘Are you serious? You don’t understand. I just left my whole house behind and moved here with a bag of clothes.’ Like I would move here for $600 a month!”
Josie says she has learned to always go to DHHS with a caseworker or trusted friend “because of the way they talk to me or the way I get treated. They don’t listen to me. When I’m trying to get services, I get looked down on a lot.”
According to Josie, the agency also has tried to persuade her to offer up information about the children’s father in an effort to collect child support from him. She is under no obligation to provide that information.
The Family Violence Option under the 1996 federal welfare reform law waives certain public assistance requirements for women who have faced domestic violence if compliance would put them or their children at risk. It was only after Josie received help from a Spruce Run advocate that DHHS complied.
For three months, Josie and her children had no assistance and received considerable help from Spruce Run: medicine, food, other necessities. She received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for a short time before finding employment.
A struggle to provide
Josie was licensed as a certified nursing assistant when she was 19. When she moved to Maine, she learned she would need to be relicensed, requiring training she could not afford. Josie has an interest in pursuing a degree in social work, but was told by DHHS that she needed to find a job — that school was not an option. She was not told, for example, about the Parents as Scholars program for TANF-eligible adults enrolled in a postsecondary degree program.
As she searched for a job, Josie met regularly with a Career Center adviser who gave her hands-on support that allowed her to secure her current job. The adviser also connected Josie with the Pregnant and Parenting Opportunities Program in Bangor — a collaboration between a local adult education program and Literacy Volunteers of Bangor that offers its participants support in parenting and work readiness.
The program also sets up each participant with a mentor. Josie’s mentor and one of the program organizers have started working with Josie to design a business plan for her own cleaning company — a career move that would allow Josie to spend more quality time with her children. Her current job requires weekend work and long hours.
Josie’s kids “are not happy because they see that I’m not happy, they can sense it,” she said. “It is a bit stressful, so they can feel that.”
Josie also is worried because her children have been teased at school.
“I know children are mean everywhere, not just here,” she said. “But my daughter is so young and that her appearance matters so much frustrates me. The children are mean about her hair; it is not long like other little girls’. She doesn’t have bangs.”
Despite feeling lonely, stressed and judged for being a young, single mother, Josie plans to stay in Maine for a while. She is grateful for the supportive people in her life, and she finds strength through art. She writes poems, stories and music; she sings; and she is learning to play the guitar. She says that she has made friends among like-minded people through her poetry and art.
In the future, Josie said she would like to have her own business and be able to provide for her children. Art and social work are top interests for her.
“I want to give back,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of people who have helped me, and I want to be able to do that for someone else. The world needs a lot more people who care in that field.”
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.