Bridgeport, W.Va. Welfare laws force recipients to leave the house, get a job and become self-sufficient -- the very things batterers try to prevent their victims from doing.
People who don't meet federal work requirements, regardless of the reason, can lose benefits. West Virginia is one of a few states offering help.
A program in the planning stages since 1997 is finally getting started, granting exemptions to victims who disclose their abuse.
Welfare case workers help identify victims, then refer them to programs offering support and guidance. People who qualify can be exempted from work, training or educational requirements, and can receive a check beyond the federal limit of five years. Exemptions last for six months and can be renewed indefinitely.
"West Virginia is one of only a handful of states to make a financial commitment to moving battered women through welfare reform," said Anne Menard, a consultant to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The state has used surplus money from its welfare program to hire a family violence option advocate in all 55 counties, as well as a full-time state coordinator. It also is funding job training, parenting courses and other services, for a total investment of $2.7 million.
"It's a visionary decision to provide this kind of funding," said Menard, who helped train the county advocates. "The reality is, some states are very hostile to their welfare populations."
The family violence option also can exempt a parent from enforcement of child support or spousal support orders, both of which are required under welfare reform and both of which can escalate or renew abuse.
Most women who are being abused are already working, Menard said. But those venturing into the work force because of welfare reform often see their abusers go to great lengths to maintain control.
Advocates and welfare case workers are forging a new alliance through the family violence option, learning each other's job duties and restrictions as well as the dynamics of domestic violence.
Already, bringing them together has paid off. During the training session, some advocates discovered why they had not been receiving referrals. In many cases, state Department of Health and Human Resources case workers were interviewing men and women together about their long-term plans for getting off welfare.
"They're not going to say anything if the guy's sitting right there," said an exasperated Sarah Thumm, Monongalia County's advocate. "Case workers won't pick up on signs unless you have something as obvious as a big black eye."
Initially, the decision of whether to interview people individually was left to the local case worker. Soon, the state will make it standard procedure.
Working out kinks like that is just part of the process, said Sue Julian, team coordinator at the Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Kanawha County.
"It has been very slow getting off the ground," she said of the family violence option. "But it was really important for the state to take time to understand more thoroughly the possible implications of their policies."
On the Net:
West Virginia Coalition of Domestic Violence: www.as.wvu.edu/coll03/wmst/www/wvdv.html
West Virginia Department of Health & Human Services: www.wvdhhr.org/