Government Shutdown Hits Families

CAFCA | October 09, 2013 |

 Melanie Rhodes holds her son, Malachi, 3, during an interview at ABCD Inc., in Bridgeport, Conn. Oct. 2, 2013. Malachi is enrolled in the agencyâÄôs federally funded Head Start program, which has closed due to the Congressional impasse and government shutdown. Photo: Ned Gerard / Connecticut Post

Things were looking up for Melanie Rhodes.

Rhodes, a single mother with a rambunctious, autistic three-year-old had finally landed a job as a part-time bus driver. She just completed a physical and was waiting on the results of a mandatory drug test, but expected to start the job by next week.

Then the federal government shut down.

Rhodes' son, Malachi, attends a federally-funded Head Start program in Bridgeport, which has been closed since Tuesday because of the congressional budget stalemate. Now she is left with no one to care for her son and if the standoff continues, her job may be jeopardized.

"I am trying to figure out, who can I trust," said Rhodes, 43. "I can't let just anyone watch my child because not everyone knows how to handle a special need's child."

Malachi bounded across an empty Head Start library Wednesday as his mother discussed her situation with reporters. He is one of the 1,000 Head Start students at 13 Bridgeport sites left without a school program and the two meals a day served there.

The 313 Head Start employees in Bridgeport are among 9,000 federal workers statewide who have been told to stay home until the impasse is over. As negotiations dragged on in Washington, D.C. with no end in sight, lawyers at the U.S. Attorney's office in Connecticut, clerks at IRS offices in Bridgeport and workers private defense contractors like Sikorsky in Stratford are being furloughed.

In the case of ABCD's Head Start, it was a case a funding cycle that ended on September 30, 2013. A closed government meant that an anticipated $14 million appropriation for the new fiscal year was not coming.

"We had no alternative but to shut down," said William Bevacqua, assistant director at ABCD. "Without resources, we can't provide a program."

"People are really scrambling to get care and negotiate their lives," said Monette Ferguson, ABCD's director of early learning.

A notice that went home to parents Monday advised them to watch the news and call a hotline on Tuesday to learn if they should bring their child to school.

Rhodes said she stayed up past midnight watch the news and knew it wasn't looking good. Still, she called Tuesday morning hoping to hear ABCD found a way to open. That didn't happen.

"I'm like this is my luck," Rhodes said, shaking her head as Malachi race through the room gliding a small plastic truck across the surface of the room walls, chairs and his mother's leg.

Once homeless, Rhodes now has her own apartment. She has been slowly been rebuilding a life for herself since the birth of her premature son nearly four years ago.

Born two months early, Malachi stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated twice. Once he left the hospital, he was placed in a birth to three program and has been in Head Start since he was nine-months old.

"He's grown up here," Rhodes said. "He loves coming here. He really does. The staff members know him. I can trust them. They always have my back if I am running late."

Though still not verbal, Malachi knows some sign language. He is very active, social and has a big smile.

"Every week they let me know what he learned and what they are working on," said Rhodes.

Rhodes used the time Malachi was in school to look for work.

"They say it is easy. It is not easy (to find a job)," Rhodes said. "I filled out applications forWalmart, Walgreens, McDonalds, every single last every company, on line and in person. Most places want you to be flexible. I can't be flexible with him in school and no car."

Now steps away from getting a good paying job, she said she is hoping and praying by next week Congress will lift up their shutdown so we can get back to normal. She doesn't think it's fair that Congress and their staff continue to collect a paycheck when families like hers, scrambling to have clean clothes, hot water, meals to eat, and childcare are left with nothing.

"We need our government and businesses open," she said. "Why should we suffer and be held hostage while government and can't do what they need to do."

Becquava said Rhodes is typical of many parents at the center who reacted with frustration and exasperation.

"These are the working poor," Becquava said. "They live paycheck to paycheck. Without child care, they can't report to work. It puts them in jeopardy of losing their job, no earning a paycheck and not being able to pay their bills."