[Hpn] Still together, against the odds
Mon, 12 Jul 2004 06:42:02 -0400
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Still together, against the odds
By TOM ZUCCO
Published July 12, 2004
LAKELAND - Mother Bouges ran her hand along the unfinished plywood a workman had hung over the gaping hole in her front door. And she found the crowbar marks the thieves had made when they tried to pry the door off its frame.
Still, she said, there isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't thank the Lord for everything she has.
"But the food stamps," she said, her tiny voice trailing off.
"Do you know how I can get them back?"
Last February, soon after 92-year-old Lucille "Mother" Bouges asked for and received custody of six of her great-great-grandchildren, her story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times and other local and national media. The daughter of sharecroppers who died before she was 10, Bouges wanted to keep the children together until their mother was scheduled to be released next year from a drug and alcohol treatment center.No other relative wanted to take all six children, who are ages 12, 10, 8, 7, 4 and 3, and officials from the state Department of Children and Families agreed that having the children live with Mother Bouges was better than scattering them to foster homes.
In the days after the story, gifts of furniture, clothing, food and money eased the family's burden. An anonymous donor from Tampa volunteered to pay her utility bill for the rest of her life. Others donated a television, board games and a new dining room table with eight matching chairs.
But the joy wouldn't last.
Thieves tried to break into the house recently while the family was at church. No one got inside, but the front door was smashed. One by one, all six bicycles the children got for Christmas have been stolen.
The children's mother, 26-year-old Tabatha Worlds, violated her probation in March by running away from the treatment center. Worlds is now listed as a fugitive by the Department of Corrections.
So on summer afternoons that seem to last forever, when it's too hot for the kids to play outside, the main source of entertainment is the gentle, gray-haired woman who is stooped by her years and ignores as best she can the arthritis raging in her shoulder.
"They certainly keep me going," Mother Bouges said Thursday as 7-year-old Curtis, who wears braces on his legs because of a degenerative muscular disorder, climbed into her lap. "When I get tired, I just sit and wait for them to calm down."
All of those problems, Mother Bouges said, could be coped with.
All except the food stamps.
About a month ago, she got a phone call informing her she will no longer receive them.
"I asked why, and they said I had to come in to their office," she said. "I couldn't get up there to talk to them. I need someone to take me. I'll try again tomorrow."
Mother Bouges receives about $1,530 a month in Social Security benefits for herself and two of the children who have special needs - Curtis and a brother who has attention deficit disorder. Of that money, $440 goes to rent the yellow three-bedroom clapboard house with the dirt front yard.
They barely get by on the rest. Bus fare to the mall is a special treat.
Mother Bouges thinks the food stamps were cut off because she owns a home. It's a one-bedroom house that she had to leave when she took in the children. "No one lives there now," she said, "and I don't think anyone could. I'd have to get somebody to fix it up if I moved back. It's in bad shape."
The problem may have been made worse as the result of a recent streamlining of procedures at the Department of Children and Families, said DCF regional administrator Lynn Richard.
"We're at a loss to explain it," Richard said this week. "Hopefully, it's a misunderstanding. But we'll get to the bottom of it. If she's not eligible, we'll find other resources."
Although Bouges may be the oldest person in Florida to take custody of a child, and although she has six children in her care, DCF did not know about her food stamp dilemma until contacted by a reporter.
"In a case like this, most caseworkers would do extensive followup," Richard said. "But we've got dozens of different groups that would work with a family like that, and I don't know the details.
"Typically, these kids would've come in through an agency like child welfare, and the people there may or may not have found out the food stamps had stopped.
"It looks like she has some special issues that are a concern," Richard added. "Like her house. But our goal is to try to get her whatever she is eligible for and also ensure we can preserve the home."
Richard also said that when families encounter trouble, DCF sometimes has no choice but to rely on family members or others in the community to alert them.
"Handling issues like this takes a community effort," Richard said. "We rely on a lot of different folks in the community - schools, churches and other community members - to all help make sure one of the agencies, city, county or state, knows about it."
For now, the refrigerator and the cupboard are full. Relatives and members of the Church of God by Faith, where Mother Bouges is revered, occasionally stop by with meals. That helps.
But unless something changes soon, she'll have to dip into the money she was saving for school clothes. And it won't last long.
"I have enough food to last a few days," she said. "When you don't have a lot, you learn how to stretch."She smiled down at her great-great-grandson and stroked his forehead. "What makes me feel good is that my babies are with me. We're all still together.
"No, I'm not worried."
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