SICK

Michigan Punishes Mom for Her Daughter’s Brain Cancer

It was meant to be ‘tough love,’ but a Michigan law kicking mothers off welfare when their kids miss school has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

07.21.15 5:03 AM ET

To say Lisa was sick doesn’t really begin to describe her troubles. The 12-year-old was racked by seizures and disabled by strokes from the brain surgery she underwent to remove a tumor. After battling cancer throughout her life, Lisa required “assistance in dressing, eating, and elimination of urine and feces,” as a doctor noted.

She most certainly could not go to school, as the superintendent, principal, and head of special education in her school district were all aware.

“For the past two and a half years of her life, she was in and out of the hospital,” her mother, Martha, said. “She went from being this chatterbox to not talking at all.”

But someone else at the school nevertheless dropped Lisa from enrollment after seeing she had been absent since spring 2012, when she suffered a stroke. By October 2014, Martha was told by the state of Michigan that her application for welfare was denied—because her daughter wasn’t going to school.

“I checked my [benefits] card monthly to see how much I would have, and thought, Why is my amount less? Then I got a letter in the mail,” Martha told The Daily Beast. (She asked that she and her daughter be allowed to use pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)

Michigan kicked Martha, Lisa, and her two siblings off welfare. Thanks to a policy created by the department’s Republican-appointed director, the state can cut off households if their children are truant. The state Department of Health Services said 350 households have had assistance eliminated or reduced since 2012 as part of Michigan’s attempt to force welfare recipients to send their kids to class.

“Our top priority is to keep kids in schools, and we want to use whatever tools we can to incentivize children to stay in school,” DHS spokesman Bob Wheaton told The Daily Beast.

Cutting Martha and Lisa off of welfare did no such thing, of course.

When asked how effective this policy of cutting parents off welfare was in getting children to go back to school, Wheaton said the department doesn’t really know.

“That’s not anything we’re able to track because they’ve stopped receiving public assistance,” Wheaton said, adding the department has the “ability, in some cases, to manually cross-reference new-applicant [data] and current-recipient data.”

Using that dodgy method, Wheaton said about one-sixth of the households who were recently cut from welfare for truancy are now receiving it again. About half who lost it haven’t bothered to re-apply.

Despite a lack of conclusive data that cutting parents off welfare gets children to go back to school, Republicans pushed a bill to write the policy into state law. Representative Jim Runestad said at a hearing this year that it was time for “tough love” because parents of truant children “were on drugs” and “kids were running free.” Last month, Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed the “Parental Responsibility Act” into law.

There are proven ways to reduce truancy that don’t rely on punitive measures. Michigan’s own “pathways to potential” program uses caseworkers in 200 schools to help families get assistance for day care (so an older sibling isn’t staying at home to take care of kids), vouchers for public transportation, and more. Wheaton said the program has reduced chronic absenteeism by 33 percent.

Without a caseworker fighting on her behalf, Martha went to court.

A judge last summer said he was “sympathetic to the extenuating circumstances” but that school enrollment is required for benefits, period. The department’s “denial for not being enrolled was proper and correct.”

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In other words, the department was right to drop Martha and her family from welfare even though the decision was made on the basis of erroneous information.  

Four weeks later, another judge ruled in Martha’s favor after finding she “never actively transferred her daughter to any other school.” In addition, Lisa had been enrolled on the day Martha last applied for welfare. The judge ordered the state to backpay several months of assistance and no longer deny the family’s welfare applications.

Martha won.

Lisa did not. She died of cancer before the second ruling.

Martha is now living on her own with her two adult children after moving in temporarily with her mother in Detroit.

“They’re supposed to be a help department, but I think they actually hurt you more than help you,” Martha said. “I don’t want her death to be in vain. If her situation can help another family, I really want it to be done. I hate to have anyone go through what I went through.”