These Single Moms Are Forced to Choose: Reveal Their Sexual Histories or Forfeit Welfare
More than a dozen mothers in New Mexico spoke to ProPublica about their experiences with cash assistance, as did former Human Services Department lawyers and caseworkers who handled welfare applications.
The moms described it as humiliating and sometimes terrifying to be questioned about their sexual histories by agents of the state, in small interview rooms, just to obtain a basic form of government help.
Some were required to submit their children to genetic testing in order to receive aid.
Others fear domestic violence or emotional abuse if they name fathers to the authorities. Caseworkers from multiple states shared instances of mothers saying that dads had threatened to retaliate by killing or kidnapping the mom or her child.
One worker not in New Mexico said in an email that in a recent case, an absent father told a woman applying for public assistance that “if she ever mentions his name on anything, that is the last time she would ever be able to say his name.”
For many mothers, though, the harm is subtler: Fathers may retaliate by withholding informal support, like cash, gifts to the kids or babysitting help. Or a mother may know that her former partner is in a precarious financial situation, and would be ruined by the government garnishing up to 65% of his paycheck — and threatening him with jail time if he can’t or won’t pay up.
In August, the New Mexico Human Services Department cut Sanchez’s monthly benefit from $357 to $268 due to her failure to cooperate with child support, her case documents show; the agency may soon slash the amount to zero.
“And who suffers when benefits are cut? The child,” said Teague González, director of public benefits for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “That’s money for rent, food and diapers. Children shouldn’t be penalized for what either parent is or isn’t doing.”
…As for mothers who complained about how they were questioned by the department, McCracken said that she could imagine how it would feel “if I was in that situation and I had to go in and explain when I had sex, when was the last time, and with whom.” But those details are essential to the task of establishing biological paternity, she said. “We recognize that this is not a comfortable situation.”
Sanchez, after being informed by an advocate about the option to request an exemption from these requirements, submitted forms saying, in part, “I do not want to ruin the relationship by getting child support.” The agency responded weeks later with a notice saying that due to her failure to comply, “Your benefits will be less or stop.”
McCracken said that subjective reasons that a mother might not want to cooperate with child support in order to receive assistance — short of domestic violence or other risk of severe physical or emotional harm to her or her child — are not legally valid. Sanchez’s concerns about the process crushing her fragile family dynamic, for instance, do not meet the standard for opting out, McCracken said.
The practice of confiscating child support payments from the poor persists in part because some policymakers believe that welfare should be considered a loan, to be repaid by the patriarch of the family.