In-Home Support Services enable families to care for each other

by Savannah Kilner and Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams is a poverty, disability and race scholar at POOR Magazine. In February 2011, Michelle’s mother had a stroke. Despite Michelle’s disabilities and living almost an hour away from her mother’s home in Vallejo, she had to take on primary caretaking duties when her mother was released from the emergency room on Feb. 19, 2012.

Michelle’s mother was told by doctors and social workers at Kaiser she would need 24-hour care. She relied on In-Home Support Services (IHSS), her brother and Michelle, who came to her home to help whenever she could.

But on Feb. 27, 2012, while caring for her mom, expecting respite care and assistance and looking for a good facility for her mom to be placed in, a Kaiser social worker threatened to get Adult Protective Services involved. That’s when Michelle realized she was under duress.

In a climate of proposed cuts to an already slashed social services budget, Michelle was forced to take care of her mother. This was a difficult and tedious job, as her mother is paralyzed and is totally dependent on others.

IHSS could provide care only eight hours a day Monday through Saturday, leaving the rest to Michelle. The situation was very challenging, as Michelle is unemployed due to her own personal physical disabilities.

If Michelle was not caring for her mother 16 hours a day and all of Sunday, APS – like CPS (Child Protective Services, an arm of the police – could charge her with neglect or abandonment. “I feel like I am under house arrest. At this time I have no other family to help out. If I leave, APS gets involved … This has emotionally, physically and mentally drained me. I feel imprisoned in my mother’s home.”

Michelle was being surveilled by Kaiser social workers and county workers and had to seek other counsel. “They don’t sit down and explain the logistics of the medical industry. They use classism, racism, ageism and ableism to bank on people not understanding, not caring, not knowing our rights … First, like some commodity, they wanted to institutionalize her. Now I can’t get help.” Michelle was under extreme duress. “It’s breaking me down,” she said. “I’m physically in a lot of pain. It’s affecting my disabilities and I fear losing my own home.”

Michelle fought Kaiser and the county and demanded that emergency respite care be provided for her mother. After many trials, she is now back in her own home.

Budgets created by capitalist colonial governments have never been set up to serve poor people’s needs. So when we talk about reform, social services are still part of a system that kills us. And yet, many of us rely on the few social services that are out there. Over the last couple years especially, the attack on social services in California and the inflation of the prison-building budget have accelerated in a frightening way.

Recent cuts to In-Home Support Services (IHSS) have impacted hundreds of thousands of families in California. IHSS allows poor elders and people with disabilities to stay in their homes and communities with their families and children.

Last Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed reducing state spending on the IHSS program by $210 million – over $420 million if federal matching funds are lost. This would eliminate In-Home Supportive Services for about 245,000 elders and people with disabilities and mental health needs. According to the state, over 440,000 people are receiving IHSS services.

Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to eliminate In-Home Supportive Services for about 245,000 elders and people with disabilities and mental health needs, putting them at risk for institutionalization.

In 2009, Gov. Schwarzenegger began an all-out attack on IHSS. He cut the program and implemented background checks, barring formerly incarcerated people from employment. IHSS has historically been a way for poor people to make some money caretaking for their extended families and neighbors – providing employment to folks who may not be able to find it elsewhere and supporting families staying together in their homes.

Since about three years ago, applicants are required to undergo fingerprinting and background checks at their own cost. Anyone with certain “job-related” felonies is immediately banned – Schwarzenneger expanded that list of convictions from four to 50. The new application says: “If you ever had a felony or serious misdemeanor conviction, you are ineligible to be a caregiver,” which is inaccurate and makes many people with any record think they are ineligible.

The program was by no means perfect – IHSS workers only make $8-$12 an hour in California. Michelle never intended to be a paid IHSS worker, but it was one way for family members to remain caretakers and for elders and people with disabilities to stay in their homes.

Jerry Brown continues the dismantling of IHSS in Schwarzenegger’s wake, which puts poor families and families of color at risk for criminalization via APS. It also puts about 250,000 elders and people with disabilities living in California at risk for institutionalization.

Elders and people with disabilities, family members and IHSS unions and workers are fighting the further cuts to the IHSS program. Budget genocide systematically withholds basic necessities from poor and people of color communities as it beefs up prisons and policing and the criminalization of poverty.

How can we create true models of interdependence and caretaking that do not rely on the state and that value the beauty and brilliance of intergenerational family and community? POOR’s Homefulness Project is one attempt to answer this question.

Read more about issues of poverty and race written by the people who face them daily at POOR Magazine/POOR News Network,