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St. Petersburg Times
Sunday, January 23, 2000
Author: CURTIS KRUEGER
Weighed down by illness, Sarah MacLeod was forced to turn to welfare and food stamps to support her family. When it looked like her benefits had expired, she lost hope. Sarah MacLeod always said she was keeping her late uncle’s .38-caliber handgun for protection.
But just now, the weapon was clenched in her hand, not protecting anyone. The 43-year-old mother of three descended the wooden staircase outside her second-story apartment and walked into the back alley. A minute earlier, she had dialed 911 and spoken in a slow, lethargic voice. I’m going to kill myself.
Police sped toward her home, but they didn’t know her story. Depression, arthritis, fibromyalgia and other maladies weighed her down, forcing her to get by on welfare, food stamps and family kindness.
Her illnesses made Ms. MacLeod an example of the toughest cases for Florida’s welfare system in the current era of reform. She couldn’t cook dinner for her daughters, much less flip burgers for someone else. But her benefits had a time limit, just like everyone’s. And the clock was ticking.
Then, two months ago, she was shocked to learn she was also losing food stamps, for what seemed like a ridiculous reason: Caseworkers said her daughter’s college scholarship should count as family income. Officials recently admitted to the family they made a mistake. But at the time, the decision stoked Ms. MacLeod’s worst fear: that her daughter might have to quit school to take care of her.
“She was very sad,” said that daughter, Julie Combs, 20. “She felt guilty.”
In October, Ms. MacLeod complained about her plight to the St. Petersburg Times, saying she didn’t know how she would get by. But she didn’t plead her case with a supervisor, or appeal the decision.
Instead, she walked into the alley with the gun. From a nearby porch, her mother heard two blasts. It was two nights before the new year. She thought it was firecrackers.
Sarah MacLeod was a trusting, caring soul, her family says – though not always the best judge of character. The petite, red-haired girl dropped out of high school in her native North Carolina, later got a GED and attended college briefly. She married at 19, and moved with her husband to an Air Force base in Illinois, where her first child was born.
Ms. MacLeod was a needy person, said her mother, Barbara Jordan. “She needed a man in her life,” Mrs. Jordan said, and often had one, but the relationships never lasted. Her mother and sister said one of her husbands drained money from a business of Mrs. Jordan’s and left Ms. MacLeod with IRS debts.
She moved to Florida about 15 years ago, now with three girls, Christy, Julie and a baby, Arielle Collier. In the early 1990s, she settled into the back building of a house owned by her sister and brother-in-law in St. Petersburg’s Old Northeast neighborhood.
She was a devoted Christian and also a science fiction fan, who enjoyed disappearing into the novels of Roger Zelazny. But her greatest joy came from her three daughters.
About 1995 she got a job she loved – as an aide in a nursing home. Ms. MacLeod relished the job’s simple, helpful duties: bathing people, helping them move about with a walker, even changing their diapers. “She knew what would make people more comfortable, because it would make her feel more comfortable,” said her sister, Julie Scholting, a registered nurse.
But the job lasted only a couple of years. Illnesses overtook her.
Fibromyalgia, a disease that causes muscle pain and chronic fatigue, left her feeling listless. She suffered from depression, and took Prozac and Zoloft. Arthritis, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease and other ailments filled her days and nights with pain. Two doctors said she couldn’t work.
“I can barely get out of bed,” she wrote to welfare officials last year. “I forget to pick my child up from school. I have arthritis. I am chronically ill. I was diagnosed with non-insulin diabetes. I have bulging discs in my neck and lumbar spine-sciatic nerve inflamed.”
She was upset that the medications seemed to make her gain weight, turning her petite frame plump.
It also agonized her that instead of bringing home a paycheck, instead of even having the energy and wits to cook a meal, she often sat with her two younger daughters, eating a Marie Callender’s TV dinner. She clipped coupons, but needed daughter Julie to help her get around the store. Sometimes she forgot what she had come to buy.
“I’d go back to work in a heartbeat,” she told the Times in October. “This isn’t very good for your self-esteem.”
So she leaned on welfare, food stamps, Medicaid – and faith. “I rely on God . . . he’s never failed me,” she said at a welfare hearing in November.
But sometimes, her thoughts turned darker. She would mutter to her daughters, “You’d be better off without me.”
A couple of years ago, when she first dropped that ominous hint, daughter Arielle was alarmed. “I got upset and I told her not to do anything,” said Arielle, now 15. The word got to Ms. MacLeod’s sister, who marched up to her apartment.
“I went up and I blasted her,” Mrs. Scholting said. “I told her she should not be talking about suicide.”
But as Arielle recalls, her mother’s spirits always revived. She told her daughters that as a Christian, she would never end her own life.
Although Ms. MacLeod had dropped out of college, her daughter Julie had shown every sign of excelling in school.
The 1997 valedictorian at First Baptist Christian School, she is a junior at Eckerd College studying environmental biology. She has managed to afford tuition at the private college through an Eckerd Honors scholarship and $17,000 in student loans.
Nothing upset Ms. MacLeod more than the suggestion that Julie might not finish college. But sometimes, Julie wondered if she should leave school to help her mother. She considered giving up a chance to study in Australia for a semester, but Ms. MacLeod insisted she go.
Ironically, the new welfare system designed to encourage self-sufficiency scared Ms. MacLeod into thinking Julie might have to drop out of school.
Ms. MacLeod was among 2,286 welfare recipients in Florida who are not required to work for their benefits because they have medical problems that will last more than 90 days. Florida’s welfare system really hasn’t figured out how to deal with this group. Many have long-term disabilities and will never be able to work, but they will still be cut off welfare, at least as the law stands now.
The state welfare board on Monday will consider asking the Legislature to let some disabled or ill people receive welfare beyond the current four-year lifetime limit.
Ms. MacLeod was worried about losing her benefits. It’s the reason she called the Times in October. For a more permanent solution, she had applied for disability benefits from Social Security but was turned down in a form letter that said, “We have determined that your condition is not severe enough to keep you from working.”
At a welfare board in November, Ms. MacLeod received a six-month welfare extension – through June 2000. Bill Daugherty, a volunteer member of the hearing board, asked how she would get by if she did not receive Social Security disability.
“That’s a very difficult question,” she answered slowly, sitting at a table with daughter Julie beside her. “The one that I do not want to entertain would be to have my 20-year-old daughter take care of me. . . . She’s at Eckerd on a scholarship and for her to take care of me would be meaning that she would more than likely, because of her health problems – she’s diabetic – not finish school.”
That, she said, was “a very depressing thought.”
Her caseworkers clearly tried to help her. Significantly, they noted her depression and referred her to a mental health clinic, where she had begun seeing a therapist.
But during the hearing, officials failed to tell Ms. MacLeod an important fact: She would be eligible for an extra year’s worth of welfare benefits after her six-month extension, as long as she was still appealing her Social Security decision, as she intended.
Her case manager told the welfare hearing board that “if she’s denied any extension then she truly is going to be without any income.” Daugherty told her that “You may have to go to plan B in six months, and I would suggest we think about plan B.” By plan B, he meant a plan for how she would survive after the six-month welfare extension ended.
Actually, after the six months expired, she could have had 12 more. Her daughter Julie says she never knew that.
As if that battle with the system weren’t enough, Ms. MacLeod found herself in another.
She went to a routine meeting about Medicaid in October or November with officials from the state Department of Children and Families. Looking through her paperwork, a caseworker noticed a reference to Julie’s scholarship, Julie said. As Ms. MacLeod explained the story – which she later related to her daughters, her sister and a newspaper reporter – Julie’s scholarship of roughly $9,200 would be counted as family income, meaning they would no longer be eligible for food stamps.
“She freaked out. She didn’t know how to take care of us, how she was going to get food,” Arielle said.
“She said to me, `You know that means no food, no food,’ ” Mrs. Scholting said.
She hugged her sister and said not to worry. After that, Mrs. Scholting began adding extras to her grocery list, bringing home Dinty Moore stew, Hormel chili, fruit, toilet paper, cat and dog food.
In retrospect, Mrs. Scholting says, this was a low point for her sister, “because it meant so much for her to have this kid in school.”
It is not at all clear why the department made this decision – because of federal confidentiality laws, officials can’t talk about it.
Whatever the reason, it turned out to be a mistake. The laws on this matter are complex. But according to a list of guidelines provided by the department: “generally, income a student receives from scholarships, educational grants, loans and work study is excluded income,” meaning it would not count against someone on food stamps.
Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Elaine Fulton-Jones said, “Our staff who determine eligibility do occasionally make mistakes. That’s exactly why they have an appeal process.”
“All of us feel badly for someone who feels so desperate,” she said. “It’s not fun to tell people that they aren’t eligible for benefits . . . it’s one of the most awful parts of the job.”
Last week, Beverly Finn, a program administrator for the department – and not the person who made the mistake – visited Ms. MacLeod’s family and apologized for the food stamp error.
“She said she hadn’t slept much since that happened,” Mrs. Jordan said, but added, “I don’t want her blaming herself.”
Today, no one can see exactly what boiled inside Ms. MacLeod’s mind the night she walked into the alley, clenching a gun.
Her sister looks back and sees the mistaken decision to cancel her food stamps as a key. “I think that was the beginning of the real despondency,” she said.
Her mother says, `Everything in her life just seemed to go against her. Her health, men, you name it. The government coming down on her . . . it was like she was born under a bad star.”
On the evening of Dec. 29, Ms. MacLeod had gotten upset after her mother mentioned she had been putting on weight. She stormed out and went into her apartment, which is just behind the house where her mother, sister and brother-in-law live.
At about 6:30, Ms. MacLeod called 911.
“I’m going to kill myself,” she told the operator. “I want my organs to be transplanted.”
“Okay, come on, listen, have you taken anything yet?” the operator said.
“No, but the gun’s loaded and I’m fixing to do it.”
“Okay, you have a gun with you?”
“What’s your address??
“Oh, you have it. See you later.” Her voice was almost casual.
“Ma’am?” the operator said. “Ma’am? Ma’am? Ma’am? Ma’am?”
She walked down the outdoor staircase, crossed a concrete courtyard and passed four family dogs.
Like the .38, the dogs were for protection, too. They barked viciously at strangers. But as Ms. MacLeod passed, they could not sense the danger.
Her mother, sister and brother were sitting on an enclosed porch nearby but had not seen her cross the courtyard. She turned the gun on herself and fired.
Now, said her daughter Arielle, “I know she’s happy and pain-free and with God and everything.” But she also said, “I miss her, and I was a little bit sad but I was a little bit angry. I felt like she just gave up.”
If someone else is considering suicide, she said, `I’d tell them not to do it because they don’t know how hard it would be on everyone else.”
Meanwhile, Julie is taking a semester off college. She needs time to cope with her mother’s death.