The Parent Trap

First you’re arrested for abandonment, then comes child-care assistance.
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On the morning of May 19, 2009, a maintenance worker in a north Austin apartment complex knocked on the door to apartment 1226. The door swung open, and before him stood a 4-year-old girl with dark brown hair and big eyes. When she told the worker she was at home by herself, he reported his finding to the complex’s manager, who called 911.

Police and Child Protective Services arrived and surveyed the apartment. Clorox and other cleaning solutions were stored in cabinets without locks; the girl was tall enough to reach the stove; and the apartment had no telephone in case of emergency.

Authorities located the girl’s 24-year-old mother, Michelle Delvecchio, at work. After she told detectives she was leaving her daughter, Melanie, unsupervised three days a week for two-hour stretches, CPS removed the girl from her home. Delvecchio and her boyfriend were charged with abandoning a child, a felony that carries up to two years in jail.

One of Delvecchio’s neighbors later spoke about the incident on a local TV newscast. Holding her 2-month-old son on her hip, she asked what any viewer would want to know: “How could somebody do such a thing?”

Things had been going relatively well for Delvecchio at the time of her arrest. She had landed a job as a medical assistant at a local endocrinology practice and moved in with her boyfriend, a student at the University of Texas. The previous few years had been difficult. She’d struggled financially, gone through several jobs, and spent six unfruitful months in Florida trying to make a go of it there. Her relationship with Melanie was the most stable thing in her life. She considered herself a good mother.

When, at 19, she found out she was pregnant, she immersed herself in parenting books, hoping that titles such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting and What to Expect: the Toddler Years would prepare her. It’s not as though she could have turned to her own parents for guidance—she says they did a lot of drugs and considered Michelle and her four siblings an imposition. “They pretty much told us that we never should have been born. We were like dogs; they’d kick us out of the way,” Delvecchio says. “We were terrified of our parents.” The state stepped in when she was 12, placing her and two sisters in foster care after their mother abandoned them at the home of a stranger.

Delvecchio vowed to give her own child a better start. After Melanie was born in July 2004, Delvecchio earned certification as a nursing assistant. To be with Melanie during the day, she worked nights for the next few years—first at a group home for neurologically impaired children and later at a couple of Austin hospitals.

She and Melanie’s father split up when their daughter was two, but they remained on good terms. He paid child support, and in January 2009, when Delvecchio was hired at the endocrinology practice, he enlisted a relative to watch Melanie while Delvecchio was at work. After a few months, she says, “all of a sudden he said he couldn’t watch her anymore.”

Delvecchio scrambled to find child care. “The prices were like $600 a month, and I couldn’t afford it,” she says. After factoring in rent, health insurance, and other expenses, she says she was $300 short.

As a single mother of one earning $24,000 a year, Delvecchio qualified for subsidized child care in Travis County. She didn’t know it existed, let alone that she was eligible. Even if she had, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. The wait lists for subsidized childcare are long and static. At any given time last year, 26,000 kids across the state were wait-listed. In Travis County, the year ended with its waiting list at a record low—but it was still 1,000 kids long.

Delvecchio considered enrolling Melanie in the pre-kindergarten program at Pillow Elementary School. But state-funded pre-K in Texas has narrow admissions criteria: It’s open to homeless kids, non-English speakers, kids who’ve been in foster care and kids whose parents are in the military (or have been injured or killed in action). Beyond that, it’s reserved for kids who are living below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, the point at which they qualify for food stamps.

The child support Delvecchio received from Melanie’s father—$178 every two weeks—pushed her income over the annual limit by about $1,300. Delvecchio earned too much to enroll her child in state-funded pre-K, but too little to afford a private alternative.

She began leaving Melanie unattended. She says that after she left for work in the mornings, her boyfriend would watch Melanie until he went to class. Delvecchio would come home for lunch and stay with her daughter until he returned. This meant Melanie was usually alone on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from about 10 a.m. until noon. “It definitely made me uncomfortable,” Delvecchio says, “but at the time I told myself it was OK. I was like, the dog is here, she doesn’t get into things, she’s a great kid, it’s just for a short amount of time, it’s not permanent.”

Delvecchio figured she’d soon be able to solve her child-care problem. “It was new to me that I was in a situation where I couldn’t do something for my daughter, because I had always provided for her,” she says.

A couple of months passed before the maintenance worker happened by. During those months, she says, “I wasn’t sitting around saying I don’t care that she’s here by herself. I was actively seeking day care that I could afford. I was trying really hard.”

Delvecchio’s situation typifies the bind in which the working poor in Texas find themselves. “It’s this no-man’s-land where you don’t get any help from a public program, but you can’t get enough out of your paycheck to pay for all of your needs,” says Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), a think tank that studies how policies in Texas affect low- and middle-income residents.

The families of 120,000 children in Texas—700,000 nationwide—are stuck in the same predicament, according to a November 2008 report by the Pew Center, “The Pre-K Pinch: Early Education and the Middle Class.”

That’s because more than half of the 38 states that fund pre-K programs base admission on family income. In most, as in Texas, families earning more than 185 or 200 percent of the federal poverty line are ineligible. “That’s not realistic,” says Albert Wat, who wrote “The Pre-K Pinch” report. “There’s no scientific reason for that cut-off point. It’s not the case that a family at 190 or 200 percent is doing fine.”

In Texas the requirement means that a family of four earning $39,220 is out of luck. Wat estimates that such a family would need to earn at least $60,700 to afford a good private alternative to state-funded pre-K without cutting essentials such as health care or food.

Delvecchio says health insurance “would have been the first thing to go” if she’d known she wouldn’t find care for Melanie—$150 was coming out of each paycheck to insure her and her daughter. Other than that, she says, “I probably would have got rid of my car or not paid my bills.”

According to the CPPP, a single parent like Delvecchio who lives in Austin with one child needs to earn at least $38,284, or 280 percent of the poverty line, to cover basic expenses, including child care. That’s about $10,000 more than Delvecchio brought in, including child support.

Wat advocates opening pre-K to all 4-year-olds, but while policymakers figure out how to pay for that, he thinks they ought to at least raise the income level for admission.

Three states (Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma) do have pre-K programs that are open to all 4-year-olds, and Wat says five more states and D.C. are moving toward that goal.

That doesn’t seem likely in Texas anytime soon. Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston has introduced a bill every year since 2005 to expand pre-K to all 4-year-olds. “I’ve never gotten it out of committee or gotten a hearing,” he says.

In 2007, the Texas Legislative Budget Board estimated that opening pre-K to all 4-year-olds would serve an additional 171,000 kids and that state and local costs would range from $583 million for a half-day program to $1.9 billion for a full-day program. (By contrast, the state increased funding for public K-12 schools by about $13 billion last year.)

Ellis says he believes the costs of the expansion eventually would be offset by the gains. Research has consistently shown that children with access to high quality pre-K are less likely to need special education, repeat grades, drop out of high school, or end up in the criminal justice system. A 2006 cost-benefit analysis by the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M found that for every $1 invested in pre-K, the state could expect a return of $3.50.

The state of Texas, which didn’t pay for pre-K for Melanie, ended up paying to prosecute her mother. “How much are we costing ourselves by not doing the right thing in the first place?” asks DeLuna Castro.

The state also spent money trying to protect Melanie. After she was found alone, the Center for Child Protection, a nonprofit funded in part by state and local grants, interviewed her to determine whether she’d been harmed. The center’s staff sticks with cases, meeting monthly with law enforcement officers, Child Protective Services caseworkers, and prosecutors.

CPS arranged for Melanie to live with her father until it determined, three months later, that she was safe in her own home. CPS also provided counseling for Delvecchio and Melanie, and sent Delvecchio to parenting classes through two providers. One covered basics such as child development; the other focused on preventing abuse and neglect.

Travis County Children F.I.R.S.T. got involved, first sending a case coordinator to determine what services Delvecchio needed, then helping her apply for the state-federal Children’s Health Insurance Program.  Delvecchio says Melanie is now covered under the program, which has freed up more than $100 per paycheck.

Delvecchio and her boyfriend broke up after the charges were filed against them. “It’s just taken a toll on everything,” she said in December. “I have this agony inside of me, because I feel like I screwed up not only my life but somebody else’s.”

She and Melanie moved into a smaller, cheaper apartment in Round Rock. Melanie, now 5, goes to kindergarten and is enrolled in an extended-care program that’s paid for by CPS. Delvecchio says that after her case is closed, her caseworker will refer her to a sliding-scale program.

These services became available to Delvecchio only because she entered the criminal justice system. Delvecchio says she’s grateful for the help—and she’s still receiving counseling—but she wishes it had come earlier, before she got into trouble.

It’s a lament that may sound familiar to other parents. CPS had more than 50,000 cases of “neglectful supervision” in 2008, according to Chris Van Deusen, a public information officer with the Department of Family and Protective Services. Not all were triggered by the dearth of affordable day care. But people who study the system agree that many are winding up with CPS in their lives not because they lack concern for their children, but because they are on the brink of poverty.

Jane Burstain, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, says it sounds like Delvecchio was doing the best that she could with what she had. While she doesn’t make excuses for Delvecchio’s decision to leave her daughter alone, she says, “If your goal is to prevent this from happening in the future, what you need to do is address the underlying problem, and the underlying problem is that Texas does not provide adequate social services and resources to low-income families, especially those who are working.”

Ten months after Delvecchio’s arrest, her case was scheduled to come before a grand jury. Her attorney, Charlie Roadman, submitted about a dozen letters on her behalf.

In one, Delvecchio’s counselor noted that Melanie was “a happy, well-adjusted and well-cared-for child who showed no signs of trauma and felt safe and happy in her mother’s care.” In a separate letter, she wrote that Delvecchio had “developed self-awareness, identified thinking errors, and gained personal and emotional strength,” and that she had “no concerns about [Delvecchio’s] ability to safely parent Melanie.” The CPS caseworker wrote a letter affirming Delvecchio’s parenting skills, saying she’d observed “appropriate discipline” and that Delvecchio had exhibited “an awareness of childhood development and educational needs.”

“I’m very glad if it’s the case that it’s going well and the child is safe,” Stephanie McFarland, the assistant district attorney assigned to the case, said a few weeks before the grand jury hearing. “But that’s not where our inquiry ends. We have a larger duty to make sure justice is followed.”

So though CPS had returned Melanie to Delvecchio and Delvecchio’s counselor had determined that she’d learned from her mistake, the state pressed on, trying to get a criminal conviction.

How could that help the girl the state was trying to protect? A jail sentence would abruptly separate her from her mother. Even if Delvecchio got probation, a felony on her record would compromise her job prospects and her ability to support her daughter.

Perhaps with this in mind, a grand jury composed of 12 citizens decided not to indict Delvecchio, and the case was dismissed. But it’s not as though there haven’t been consequences. Delvecchio lost Melanie for three months, she lost her boyfriend for good, and she’s grappling with a sense of personal failure.

Delvecchio realizes she used poor judgment in leaving Melanie alone, but she says she didn’t realize that she was doing something that could threaten her right to raise her daughter.

She remembers CPS being called on her own parents many times for reasons she considers far worse than leaving kids alone. As long as there was food and running water, she says, the family was intact, until the day her mother handed her to a stranger and didn’t return. “I told myself I would never be like my parents,” she says. “I know they say if you’re raised in a situation like that, then typically that’s the kind of person you’re going to end up being.”

Despite being accused of abandonment—the  same reason she became a ward of the state—she says there’s a big difference between her and her parents. “It’s not that I don’t care about my daughter. It’s not that I didn’t try,” she says. “It’s just about money.”

Tori Marlan is a reporter living in Austin.