Stress showed on every face as desperation made movements quick and conversations short at a Child Protective Services (CPS) training session in Ellis County on Friday.
The Poverty Simulation training turned the tables on more than 60 CPS workers and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers from Ellis and surrounding counties. Participants simulated what it meant to live below the poverty line, making decisions like whether to buy groceries or pay the utilities and struggling to have enough transportation passes to get to work on time to keep their low paying jobs. Parents also had to balance sending their children to school on time and keeping CPS appointments to maintain benefits. The simulation represented four weeks, with each week lasting 15 minutes and if someone simulated having a job, seven of those minutes were spent “at work.”
CASA volunteers advocates for abused and neglected children in the court system. CASA volunteers are currently working about 50 cases in Ellis County, said Rhodie Rawls, CASA of Ellis County executive director.
Each participant was assigned a role inside a family of two to five people for the exercise. One family unit was a 25-year-old man recently released from prison, who had a full time job that only paid $6.50 an hour and who was living with his unemployed girlfriend and her child.
In the first week of the simulation, the family lost its child to CPS when the CASA volunteer who played the mother forgot to take the child with her to the pawn shop when she attempted to pawn three items. The family then used its last transpiration passes to attempt to get the child back and to cash the boyfriend’s paycheck, meaning the boyfriend was late to work in the second week of the simulation and lost his job.
For the next three weeks, the family struggled to pay the mortgage on its trailer and the utilities for the rest of the month and received eviction pending notices, but managed to find a help-service station that would provide a transpiration pass to get them started again and and another that gave out utility vouchers. The family did get the child back from CPS, and the mother was given a part-time job in the last week of the simulation. In real life, they would have been in serious trouble because they didn’t buy food until the last week of the month.
As the weeks of the simulation progressed, participants began to feel the pressure, said Kim Garlitz, volunteer supervisor at CASA of Ellis County, who played the role of the grocery store clerk.
“The first week, people walked slow. By week three, it was just hurry, hurry, hurry. There was so much stress,” she said. “You could see it on their faces, in their expressions.”
Debra Taramona has been a CASA volunteer for one year and played the role of a grandmother raising two children under the age of 10 while caring for an aging husband.
“It’s exhausting because I’m an older person, I don’t get to see them much” she said, motioning to the two participants playing her grandchildren. “I go to work and leave them with their grandfather, then rush around to try to buy everything I need, but the week is over so fast.”
It is common for CASA volunteers to see real-world families give up on time together because there are just not enough hours in the day, said Rebecca Gentry, a supervisor with CASA. That was reflected in the simulation, she said.
“The most common thing was people ignoring their kids because they were busy going to work and trying to pay for things,” Gentry said. “Even when they had time between the simulation weeks, they were budgeting and strategizing. There was no bonding time there.”
Taramona’s simulated granddaughter, who is actually Naomi Wade, a five-year CPS worker, said the simulation showed her what the families she interacts with are facing.
“You definitely see the desperation and the feeling of hopelessness and how are we going to make this work, in addition to what CPS asks them to do,” she said.
She attended the training to get a better understanding of her clients and what she can do to help them better, she said.
Simulation participants who played children were told they were not to interfere with the family finances because children usually aren’t involved with the finances in a home, but many said they still felt the responsibility for hindering their parents.
One participant said the simulation teacher told her she had to bring back $3 for school supplies.
“I felt guilty going home and giving that to my mom,” she said. “Here we are, struggling for food and rent, and I need money for school.”
Other simulation children volunteered to babysit during their spring break or sold fake drugs they found laying around the simulation room to help the family finances.
When the simulation was compete, participants were asked who stole during the simulation. Six raised their hands. Another participant said she lied to the simulation’s doctor about her health benefits because she had forgotten her benefits card, didn’t want to loose her place in line and couldn’t remember if she was covered. She wasn’t, but she never went back to update her status after her prescription cost dropped by more than a $100.
Other participants said they felt frustrated when services closed after taking their transportation pass without offering any help, humiliated by the service providers’ rude comments and overwhelmed by the decisions they had to make.
Rawls said she hopes volunteers carry their experience from the simulation into their cases.
“I feel that so often, the people who serve families in the child protection system don’t really have the empathy they need to have because they have never experienced those things or have developed callousness,” she said.
Despite her rude comments while accepting utility payments, seven-year CASA volunteer Anna David, said not one participant lashed out at her. She played the role of the utilities collector.
“I put a frowny-face on their receipt instead of a smile and was rude and they were still nice to me,” David said.
That polite treatment of the people who hold the power to cut them off from a resource is exactly what she sees in the families she has helped, she said.
“I have never seen one of them get angry,” David said. “What I see is them get more and more quiet and they quite fighting. There is so much adversity.”
But despite how little food may be in a home or the stress each family member is under, David said she hasn’t met a child that didn’t want to be with their parents or a parent who didn’t want to keep their child. She has helped people find jobs, bought parents uniforms for work, paid for utilities and does everything she can to help the family get back on their feet, she said. While she can’t fix every problem, she still hopes she has made an impact, she said.
“I hope they remember me and that someone cared,” she said through tears. “I had a rough start and I remember the few teachers who cared about me and what a difference that made.”
Recovering her voice, she spoke strongly about her hope for each child’s future.
“I believe they deserve a chance in life,” she said.