THE STORY of Ernesto Lara -- the 4-year-old whose hands were boiled in scalding water mixed with Drano, and who was then left to rot in his agony for a couple of weeks on a mattress behind a locked door, amid his own excrement and blood -- has slipped off the media's radar screen. Which is OK with the welfare advocates. Because while they naturally felt bad about Ernesto, what really appalled them about the story was that some people were inferring from it that child abuse is connected to welfare.
Ernesto's family, as the Globe laid bare in a devastating report last month, is about as steeped in the American welfare culture as it is possible to be: The matriarch who came to the United States in 1968 and has been on welfare ever since. The 14 adult children (including Ernesto's mother, Clarabel Ventura), none working, all living on welfare. The 74 grandchildren, virtually all born and raised on welfare. The great-grandchildren, 15 and counting -- on welfare.
Might a life spent on welfare have something to do with the kind of mother Clarabel Ventura turned out to be? The kind of mother who could torture her child and disfigure him for life because -- according to the little boy -- "she was mad?" The kind of mother who blows her welfare checks and food stamps on drugs, then sends her kids out late at night to beg for food, cigarettes, and more money? The kind of mother who takes brutal men into her home? The kind of mother who has been facing charges of child abuse and neglect for seven years?
All that welfare; all that abuse and neglect. No connection?
No, insists Dellamarie Morrison of the Coalition for Basic Human Needs. "For them to say being on welfare made her do that, I don't believe so."
And reforming welfare so that only recipients willing to take a job could collect benefits -- that wouldn't help?
No, insists Betsy Wright, executive director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition: "Why draw that conclusion from one horrible child abuse case . . .? What would workfare have done for those abused kids?"
They're insistent, all right, these welfare advocates. They're also wrong.
For the blunt, ugly truth is this: Most children identified as abused or neglected come from families on welfare. That's not a welfare-basher's wishful thinking. It's the only conclusion supported by the evidence:
- According to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, the cities and towns with the worst child abuse and neglect in 1993 were the cities and towns with the most welfare. In the eight municipalities with the most reports of child abuse/neglect, the average proportion of families on welfare was 40 percent. In the eight with the fewest reports, the average was 9.7 percent.
- Anderson Consulting, a firm hired by DSS, cross-checked large samples of the foster-care caseload. The overlap with the welfare caseload ranged from 70 percent to 90 percent.
- The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect calculates that the mistreatment of children is 10 times more common among families with incomes below $7,000 -- which generally means welfare families -- than among families with incomes of $25,000 or more.
- Of the 67 children who were abused to death in Massachusetts in 1992, at least 35 were from welfare homes.
Welfare doesn't cause children to be abused or neglected, any more than pumping gas causes a car to move. But welfare is the fuel that powers the wretched cycle. It subsidizes illegitimacy. It rewards fatherlessness. It induces dependency. And it does it all to the very people least able to resist its warping effect: poor mothers with no husband, no job, and little or no education.
The welfare state didn't corrode Ernesto Lara's hands. But it corroded the values of his mother and her family. It gave them every reason -- it literally paid them -- not to be independent, resourceful, hardworking, thoughtful, competent adults.
No wonder there's a huge overlap between abuse-and-neglect caseloads and welfare caseloads. Welfare doesn't require parents to get up in the morning, to work at a job, to put food on the table, to get the kids inoculated, to arrange for day care. All it requires is that they cash a check.
Responsible parents don't hurt their children. But wherever welfare takes root, responsibility dies.
Ernesto's inflamed and bloody hands is what dead responsibility looks like. His uncle Juan is what dead responsibility sounds like:
"DSS was supposed to be there for her," Clarabel Ventura's brother told the Globe. "To myself, she is not to be blamed. If they had been there to help her, this would not have happened."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)