After losing her children in fire, woman also loses social services help

August 06, 1991|By Traci A. Johnson

Two months after fire destroyed her East Baltimore row house and killed three of her children, Dawn Renee Powell is still feeling the pain of losing her "little ones."

But the hurt is not only emotional; it is also financial.

When Ms. Powell, who was seriously burned in the fire, was released after three weeks in the hospital, she found that the Baltimore Department of Social Services had canceled all her assistance.

The reason: she no longer had children to support.

"They [Social Services] barely gave me enough of a chance to get out of the hospital before they cut me off," said Ms. Powell, 35, who is staying with her mother in Waverly. "And now I can't afford anything I need."

The May 4 fire swept through the house in the 200 block of North Collington Avenue as the family slept. It killed Ms. Powell's children -- Rosalie Harrison, 6; Mildred Harrison, 3; and Antonio Harrison, 1. MelvinFowler, 56, an acquaintance who was staying at the house, has been charged with setting the fatal fire and with the children's deaths.

Ms. Powell was burned on her arms, chest, neck and face. A 3-inch-long, tan-colored burn line beneath each eye contrasts with her brown skin. She says the thin, vertical lines remind her of the tear-stained cheeks she wiped as she was forced to sit in the hospital and miss her children's funeral.

On the day of her discharge from the Francis Scott Key Medical Centerin late May, Ms. Powell said, she went to tell her Social Services caseworker at the Dunbar office about the children's death. She was handed a letter that had been sitting on the desk ready to be mailed.

The form letter said Ms. Powell's aid would be canceled effective June 1.

"This action will be taken because there is no longer an eligible child in [the] family," the form read.

Ms. Powell was upset, but she said she didn't know what to do.

"She just gave me the letter fromthe desk and told me I wasn't going to get anything after [June 1]," Ms. Powell said.

Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Social Services, said letters of this type are standard procedure.

"We must send letters, and these are not warm, fuzzy letters. They are cold, bureaucratic letters," said Ms. Fitzsimmons, who added that she could not comment specifically about Ms. Powell because individual cases are confidential. "We do not go to people to tell them about programs and their eligibility. Unfortunately, we do not have the mechanism for that."

Ms. Powell said no one contacted her about other types of assistance before her Aid to Families with Dependent Children grant, food stamps and medical assistance were revoked.

"They didn't give me any warning. They just stopped the [medical] insurance and didn't even tell me," she said. "No one called in the hospital to tell me about any options I had."

The blaze left many marks on Ms.Powell. It also left her deeply in debt. Ms. Powell said she didn't know if the bill for her hospital stay had been paid and that her weekly visits to the doctor have piled up expenses totaling well over $1,000.

The ache from the blistering burns on her body is a painful reminder that she can't afford to buy the two $132 pressure vests and two $56 gloves that doctors say will help heal her injuries and limit scarring.

"I don't know what to do now. I need the help just to get back on my feet; then I can take care of myself. I don't feel comfortable with myself right now," Ms. Powell said. "I like being on my own, but I need help. I didn't ask for any of this; I didn't do this on purpose."

fter leaving the hospital, Ms. Powell gathered what was left of her belongings and moved in with her mother, Carolyn Powell. She reapplied for assistance under her new circumstances. She said she was denied immediate aid but told that her application would be considered.

"They told me that because I was living with my mother, I could not getany assistance at all," Ms. Powell said. "My house burns down, and because I need place to stay, they tell me I can't get assistance."

However, Ms. Fitzsimmons said medical assistance may be available for people without children and living with family if the person is disabled or poor. She said a person in Ms. Powell's situation could apply tosee if she was eligible for disability payments.

But food stamps are distributed, Ms. Fitzsimmons said, only when an entire household applies for them, except in special circumstances.

Ms. Powell believes her circumstances are special. She says her life has been altered. She has been deprived of her home, much of her property and three of her children.

Although she has four older children -- two boys who live with their father and two girls who live with an aunt -- Ms. Powell holds the memory of her youngest three dearly.

"Three pictures of the little ones, that's all I have," she said. "That fire took everything from me."

Ms. Powell, who says she drove aschool bus on and off until four years ago, also feels she has lost her independence. Because her injuries won't allow her to hold a job, Ms. Powell said she must wait for Social Services to process her application.

Meanwhile, visits to the doctor and filling medical prescriptions pile up debts. Every day without the pressure vests and gloves exposes her burns to the air and keeps her in constant pain, she said.

"I have asthma and heart problems, and compounded with the burn injuries, I can't do anything steady," Ms. Powell said. "I can barely move anything, and my left arm is really weak, but I just want to get out and get some income so I can feel good about myself again."

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