Massachusetts Reform Puts Family in Flux

For Donna Zawacki, welfare reform has been liberating and wrenching.

She's enrolled in a community college and, for the first time, is shedding years of doubt about her abilities.

But the road to self-sufficiency has not been easy for Ms. Zawacki. It's meant changing her college major and giving up her role as a full-time mom to her daughter, Ashley. Moreover, it has led to the reappearance of Ashley's father for the first time in 10 years - a development that fills Zawacki with apprehension.

Last fall, Zawacki reported to the state that she had heard Ashley's father was drawing public assistance in the form of Supplemental Security Income. Under Massachusetts's new reform law, welfare mothers must help track down fathers in an effort to get child support - or have their welfare checks cut back.

The controversial provision is tied up in court now, but Zawacki is still feeling its effects. Through the process, Ashley's father learned where she lives and on occasion shows up unannounced. On Christmas Day he arrived at 6 a.m., Zawacki says, and wouldn't leave until she threatened to call the police. He still pays no child support, and Zawacki is worried he will try now to establish visitation rights.

Much has changed for Ashley, too. She had to drop dance lessons after a tuition increase, but she still competes on the local swim team. With all that has happened, though, Ashley is in therapy now. Zawacki blames herself for that, saying it might not have been necessary if she had been home more.

"She was the most happiest, well-adjusted child you could ever meet," Zawacki says of her daughter. "It scares me. I don't know what's going to happen. If she needs that attention, she's going to get it somewhere. I just don't want her to take the wrong road. I have a knot in my stomach right now, I could break out into tears. I just don't ... my hands are tied.

"I was doing my job. I was a mother and that was my job. And I was a good mother. That is a job. They don't think that's a job any longer. It makes me angry."

For herself, Zawacki has applied for a waiver that would exempt her from community-service requirements because of learning disabilities. She's been waiting since September for a decision. Meanwhile, she changed her course of study from paralegal to the less-demanding mental-health-care curriculum, a move she says became necessary because the waiver process was so time-consuming.

Despite the setbacks, Zawacki sees the benefits of preparing herself for work. "I have a good sense of myself now, not just a sense of being a mother." Her schooling may even help Ashley in the long term, she says. "As a result of my going to school, [Ashley] will probably wind up at college herself."

Zawacki is not concerned about the two-year cutoff for welfare recipients because she's sure she will get a waiver. "I'll never be able to get my degree in two years," she says. Her backup plan is to apply for disability checks from the government.

She continues to think of herself as someone who ought to be allowed to stay on welfare - at least until she gets through school. "I can get my degree; it just takes me a little bit longer. I want to go to work and give back to the community, but I need a job that will be sufficient to adequately support myself and my daughter. Not a dead-end job."

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