- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

Nina Prather is moved to tears, “not of sorrow but of joy,” when she tells of her recovery from two decades of a harrowing life on drugs.

“I had it real bad, wherever the drugs were, that’s where Nina was,” she said during an interview in her well-appointed apartment off Georgia Avenue NW.

For years, Ms. Prather “stayed here and there” while her mother cared for her three children. About four years ago, Ms. Prather found herself being led “in leg chains, handcuffs, and the jail doors being locked behind me like I was a real criminal.” At the same time, her mother had a heart attack and was diagnosed with cancer and diabetes, and Ms. Prather faced the possibility of seeing her children sent off to foster homes.

“I got real scared, I was at bottom, and I couldn’t get down no further. I knew I had to get my life together,” said the affable Ms. Prather, who at the time was in the Montgomery County jail on a drug-related charge.

A judge placed her in the Second Genesis drug rehabilitation program, and she subsequently was accepted in the 18-month residential program — New Endeavors by Women in the District — that saved her life.

Today, the proud Ms. Prather, 39, celebrates four years of sobriety with a nicely furnished apartment and a job as a health care aide. Most of all, she is grateful, “through God’s grace and mercy,” for her elder daughter’s children, reconciliation with her son, and her younger daughter’s graduation from high school.

“New Endeavors really saved my life because I needed structure and they provided it,” Ms. Prather said. “Without it, I’d probably be back on the street.” No telling where her children would be either. “I damaged my children, and they went through a lot of my addiction with me,” said Ms. Prather, who blames no one but herself for her former actions.

Ms. Prather is one of the hard-core, persistently unemployed parents who the Annie E. Casey Foundation contends will need a comprehensive support network to bring the nation’s children out of “unnecessary” poverty.

The foundation on Wednesday released its 16th annual “Kids Count” 2005 data book titled “Helping Our Most Vulnerable Families Overcome Barriers to Work and Achieve Financial Success.”

“In 2004, almost 4 million American children lived in low-income families where neither their parent(s) nor any other adult in the household worked at all in the past year,” the report says.

Kids Count tracks the status of the nation’s children primarily through 10 areas such as birth weight, dropout, death and teen pregnancy rates. This year’s data indicate “a downturn in child well-being trends.” Though states have made substantial strides in decreasing welfare rolls, the Kids Count data — based in part on Census Bureau numbers — indicate that the number of children living in poverty increased from 2000 to 2004.

“I don’t know why we aren’t outraged,” said William O’Hare, Kids Count director.

In the D.C. area, the Kids Count statistics show that 18,000 (17 percent) of children in the District lived in homes without a working parent in the past 12 months; 7,800 (4 percent) in Virginia; and 4,500 (3 percent) in Maryland.

The foundation, based in Baltimore, is funded by an endowment from the owners of United Parcel Service and named after their late mother. To practice what they preach, UPS has adopted some of the foundation’s welfare-to-work recommendations in its jobs initiative program.

“We can and must finish the work begun under welfare reform and make good on the promise of helping all of those who want to work, even those facing the most formidable barriers, connect to jobs, become self-sufficient, and find a path out of poverty. Almost 4 million kids are depending on us,” foundation President Douglas W. Nelson said.

“We believe that the most powerful approach to altering the future of our nation’s most disadvantaged kids is to enhance the financial security of their parents in the present,” Mr. Nelson said. “The most basic and best way to do this is to help parents connect to and succeed in the work force.” The obstacles that the working poor must overcome include lack of affordable day care and adequate transportation, low literacy rates, and disincentives such as large cuts in other benefits such as health care and food stamps once wages are earned.

The foundation lists four categories that are the most difficult employment barriers — a history of incarceration, substance abuse, domestic violence and depression.

Mr. Nelson said the foundation will encourage federal, state and local lawmakers to embrace flexible, comprehensive intervention programs that provide extra support to the hard-core unemployed. It also suggests that states hire more social workers or case managers to assist parents who want to work, many of whom are single mothers such as Ms. Prather.

In addition to her willingness to clean up for her youngest child, Ms. Prather said it was the one-on-one counseling sessions with her case manager at New Endeavors that helped her get her life back on track.

“I was sick and tired of living that life, but it was all I knew,” Ms. Prather said. “I didn’t know how to live like normal people.”

Now that she does, with the extra support of the kind the Casey Foundation seeks in programs such as New Endeavors, Ms. Prather and her children are moving from poverty to a brighter future.

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