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The Boston Globe

Whatever Happened to Claribel?

Looking for the Poster Child of the Welfare Reform Movement in Massachusetts, Ten Years Later

By Charles M. Sennott

April 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

TEN YEARS AGO, in the winter of 1994, the country was in the throes of a debate on welfare reform that had taken on a particularly punitive and nasty tone. Here in Massachusetts, at the center of that debate stood Claribel Rivera Ventura, a 26-year-old Roxbury mother of six charged with child abuse who found herself cast as the poster child for the movement to radically change the state's welfare system.

On talk radio and in the tabloid press, Ventura was painted in garish colors as a welfare monster, a crack addict who had scalded her 4-year-old son's hands with boiling hot water to punish him for taking her boyfriend's food from the refrigerator. When police and emergency workers - responding to a tip from a family member - came to her Mission Hill apartment, they found the boy, Ernesto Lara, with his hands severely burned, lying on a foam mattress in his own blood, feces, and urine. The child and his five young siblings had been left unattended for eight days in the fetid apartment.

Ventura was hauled into court, her face gaunt from drug addiction. Released on bail pending trial, she fled to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 1994. When she eventually surrendered to law enforcement authorities and pled guilty to the charges, she sobbed uncontrollably as the prosecutor read her own son's words at her sentencing hearing.

"I want to see my mother go to prison, because it is all her fault. . .. I never want to live with her again," Ernesto was quoted as saying. Ventura was sentenced to 10 to 12 years in prison and her children were placed in foster care.

In the meantime, a photograph of Ernesto holding up his bandaged hands - plastered on the cover of the Boston Herald - became an icon of suffering for those who felt that the cruelty the child endured was directly linked to a welfare system so broken that it was doing more to foster poverty, despair, and violence than it was to help people pull out of that destructive vortex. Governor William Weld held up the picture on the floor of the State House for all to see. Ventura had become the central character in a parable about welfare's culture of dependency.

In February of that year, I wrote a story for the Boston Sunday Globe that documented Ventura's extended family, who had come to Dorchester from Puerto Rico in 1968. It was one of the first articles I ever wrote for the paper, and my intention was to take the story past the mean-spirited debate and try to see how and why Ventura's life came unhinged.

There was little revealing in this story of four generations on welfare, but a lot that was depressing and maddening. In less than 30 years, the matriarch of the family, Eulalia Rivera, had given birth to 17 children, who in turn had 74 grandchildren, who at the time of my story had themselves produced 15 great-grandchildren - a total of 106 people, not one of whom seemed to have ever held a steady job. The entire family, the Globe reported, relied on state and federal public assistance totalling roughly $1 million per year. When Maribel Ventura, one of Claribel's 17 siblings, was asked by the Globe how she would respond to angry taxpayers, she responded, "Just tell them to keep paying."

Ten years later, I set out to look for Ventura, and to assess the way her story had helped fuel the debate over welfare reform. Finding her wasn't easy, and perhaps not surprisingly, she had little to say to me when I did track her down. As she saw it, the Globe was part of the machinery that vilified her. Looking back, I wonder about the value of using narrative journalism to explore one family's struggle with poverty. Did we put too much emphasis on a single story, albeit a jaw-dropper, and allow it to define the issue? Should we have focused more on policy, and on the larger forces that create poverty and dependency? Or did we simply tell a compelling and outrageous story that went on to become part of the debate?

I still don't know the answers to those questions. But I do know that I always wanted to come back to the story, to find out what happened to Claribel.

. . .

As it turns out, Ventura's life today is a still unfolding tale of redemption. After serving seven years for abusing her children, she was released from prison two years ago. She emerged with a personal story of recovery from drug addiction, a glimmer of hope for the future, but mostly a day-to-day struggle to repair all that was broken in her life and the lives of her children. A thorough review of her Department of Social Services records, according to a state official, indicated that she has "by all accounts" had a "remarkably positive turn in her life."

To some of the players in the original debate, the meaning of Ventura's case has not changed. William Weld, interviewed recently by telephone at his law office in New York, said he was "pleased" to hear that Ventura had turned her life around. But he had no second thoughts about the way she came to symbolize the need for welfare reform.

"I don't think it was at all unfair," Weld said. "The lesson I would draw from her experience is that if the well-intentioned but incredibly perverse welfare system had not trapped her in a position of economic dependency and indirectly facilitated her drug dependency, she could have avoided much misery, both for herself and for others."

The historic legislation that Weld signed into law on Feb. 10, 1995, almost exactly one year after Ventura's story emerged, created a radical change in the welfare system. The state Department of Welfare became the Department of Transitional Assistance, a name- change that revealed a dramatic shift in the philosophy behind the department: a new approach that focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and welfare dependency and assisting families in achieving self-sufficiency through incentives and training programs - and severe budget cuts - that pushed them to find jobs.

Recent statistics gathered by the department show a stunning decline in the number of people dependent on welfare. In the last decade, the number of families receiving welfare has dropped by more than 50 percent, with some 48,590 on the rolls today. But many people who work closely with the poor are hesitant to call welfare reform a stunning success, and would hasten to point out that it is a particularly perilous time to be destitute.

"The numbers may look good, but things are really rough for people on welfare," said Catherine Bennett of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, who represented Ventura during her plea agreement and sentencing and who has been an outspoken advocate for the state's most disenfranchised. "All of the backup, ancillary programs that were there for people are gone now."

Adrian Leblanc, a Leominster native and author of the widely acclaimed book "Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx" (2003), has spent much of the past 10 years chronicling several generations of a troubled family. To her, understanding Ventura's story requires looking back at all the missed opportunities.

"There was always a child there who needed help, who suffered abuse herself, who had a drug addiction and missed out on treatment," Leblanc said. "I am not so sure [Ventura's] is a story about welfare reform; it seems to me it is a story about drug rehabilitation in prison, relationships she developed in prison, having food, and not being sleep deprived. . .. That doesn't mean prison works. It just means that if one sleeps and eats enough one can begin to make better decisions in life."

Ventura has indeed begun making better decisions. At least it seemed that way when I found her.

It took a few weeks to track down her address and phone number. When I finally reached her on her cell phone, the first thing she said was, "I really can't talk right now, I'm working." I could hear a cash register clicking in the background. Claribel had a job.

Several days later, I went to her apartment in a clean, well- kept Dorchester neighborhood populated with working families. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was Feb. 12, 10 years to the day from when the story of the abuse of her son broke. The 36-year- old woman I saw walking down the street with a small child in her arms, smiling and waving to a neighbor, looked nothing like the woman I saw a decade ago.

Yet when I greeted Ventura on her doorstep, she was angry. "If you write a story about me, will that do anything to change the seven years I was in prison? Will it do anything to change the fact that I lost my children?" she asked. Then she answered the question for herself.

"The only thing it will do is bring all that back and ruin my life again. . .. All those things that were written about me were awful," she said. "You know, none of you knew the truth about me." She began to cry.

Her son Ernesto, now 14, remains in foster care and is said by state officials to be flourishing in a loving home. He is still undergoing painful skin-graft operations, the officials say, to correct the disfigurement of his hands. Four of the other children are in a separate foster home, and her oldest son was in a special foster-care situation for emotionally disturbed youths.

"I don't want to go through this and I don't want my kids to have to go through this all over again," she said. "Leave me alone. Please."

Today, Ventura is married and she has a 1-year-old son. She has voluntarily given up rights to her other seven children who were born before she pled guilty and entered prison, one of them while she was a fugitive. Although she is entitled to supervised visits with those children, she has declined to see them. "I want them to do what is best for them, and I want them to keep doing well. I just don't want to disturb that," she said.

Ventura has also cut herself off from almost all of her extended family, especially from her brothers who, as her attorney disclosed at her sentencing hearing, had sexually and physically abused her for years. She said she does not know what has become of all her siblings, but had heard that some of them were removed from state and federal assistance programs and have had to find jobs. She said her mother, Eulalia, and her sister Maribel, the only two family members with whom she maintains contact, have been in ill health.

The story of Ventura's progress is in many ways as powerful as the story of her agony - and the agony of her children - 10 years ago. But it's a quieter story. It is about a prison drug- rehabilitation program that worked for her, and that State House Democrats have recently vowed to cut back. It is about justice and taking responsibility and struggling to find not just a job but, more importantly, some dignity. There are no TV cameras lining up at her house for that story, and the folks on talk radio are unlikely to weigh in.

Ventura declined to give me a full interview and instead turned to leave, saying, "I served seven years. I paid for what I did. Now leave me alone."

She walked past me and stood in the doorway of her house. There was a "Jesus Saves" keychain attached to her belt loop. Before closing the door behind her, she said, "God knows how well I'm doing, and that's all that matters."

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