SHANIECE GIBBS is still trying to make sense of a childhood that would be tragic if it weren't so common.
At 13, she was taken from her mother - a single parent on welfare - by foster care officials. Six years and several foster care families later, Ms. Gibbs is herself a single mother on welfare. But rather than having to give up her child, she has been offered a second chance.
She is part of an unusual program at the Island Family Inn, a so-called second-chance home here, where some of society's neediest welfare recipients take high school courses, child-rearing classes, and job skills training to try to get back on their feet.
The privately run but largely government-funded program offers one look at what the future of welfare may look like in America.
On Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the country, welfare is undergoing its biggest revamping in 60 years. The move is increasingly toward imposing time limits on benefits for those who have the potential to work.
In this new climate, the Island Family Inn, one of four such assistance homes in New York City, provides one model for moving welfare mothers toward greater self-sufficiency. With bipartisan support and a high success rate, the second chance homes provide a piece of common ground between those who advocate that teenage mothers should live at home with their parents, and those who support teenage mothers receiving cash from the government to make it on their own.
Inside the nondescript, four-story building here are the neediest welfare recipients in the city, ''the bottom third'' of a growing federal welfare pool, says Ralph Nunez, president of Homes for the Homeless, the nation's largest provider of residential, educational, and employment training services to over 500 families.
One reason for the congressional interest in second-chance homes is an 84 percent success rate - one of the highest among social welfare programs. ''It seems so simple, but for the first time these young mothers have a safe place to learn the basics of parenting and the skills they will need to return to society,'' Mr. Nunez says. ''We offer young mothers a great opportunity to shake free from the culture of poverty at one-third the cost of other alternatives.''
Another reason for the allure is simple economics: In a June report on second-chance homes, the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute found that at Homes for the Homeless it costs $36,000 annually to provide shelter for a mother and her two babies. The normal cost is $40,000 per child for foster care and $18,000 per adult for emergency services in New York City, closer to $100,000 annually for a family of three.
Second-chance homes are successful in spite of the obstacles they face. Half of the 117 mother here have been physically abused. Almost half are pregnant.
''I have been told all my life that I am not going to amount to anything,'' says Gibbs, living since July at the inn with her kindergarten-aged daughter, Jatika.
Families enter into a social contract to live at the inn 24 hours a day, seven days a week for six to 12 months. Half of the money for these facilities comes from federal funds that normally go directly to the welfare recipient. The other half of the budget comes from state and city funding.
Mothers live in studio apartments with their children and drop them off at the day care center on their way to school, which is just down the hall. There, they can learn employment and parenting skills as well as acquire their Graduate Equivalency Diploma.
Twenty-five students received GEDs last year, says Board of Education teacher Steve Konaplanik inside the Career Education Center. ''Our graduation rate is higher than in traditional public high schools - it's a whole different mind set here.''
Rosemary Maldonado, has lived with her infant daughter, Kayla, at the inn for five months. Ms. Maldonado is confident that she can succeed outside, and not just inside the inn's walls.
''I am taking the GEDs next month, and I plan to go to LaGuardia Community College in January,'' says Maldonado. She is particularly excited about an upcoming job interview she has with Radio City Music Hall. ''I have my resume all ready,'' she says proudly.
For many of these mothers, returning to a world that has treated them so cruelly is a harrowing process.
Paige Bartels, director of development for the four American Family Inns, says this is why they encourage mothers to stay in touch with the program's aftercare unit of job placement and social service officers when they return to society.
Mothers already have received secretarial jobs at MTV and Viacom and managerial positions at McDonald's. The program, Ms. Bartels says, prepares pupils for career advancing positions, not just for minimum-wage, short-term jobs that lead many overburdened mothers back to welfare.
Gibbs, who is midway through her six-month stay at the inn, spends time reading with her daughter in the Together in Learning center and takes Train to Gain classes to learn how to become a safety officer.
Her eyes brighten as the discussion turns to her future job prospects. ''I really want to be a therapist, but I really, really want to be a police officer,'' she says. ''Officer Gibbs. I do like the sound of that.''