MILWAUKEE -- Caseworkers rarely ask and clients rarely tell, but growing evidence suggests that disproportionately large numbers of women on welfare were sexually abused as children, a finding that offers new insight into many of the so-called hard cases that are an increasing focus of the national effort to overhaul the welfare system.
The frequency of childhood violation helps explain the roots of problems that are commonly recognized as blocking a successful transition from welfare. Women who were raped or molested as children are more likely to become addicted to alcohol or drugs, to suffer disabling battles with anxiety or depression and to become victims of domestic violence.
Here in Milwaukee, which has cut its welfare rolls more than any other city, a hidden history of childhood abuse helps explain the struggles of Mary Rhoden and Tanya Moore, who began the year as two of the most promising students in a motivation class mandated by the state welfare program.
Without a recognition of the sexual abuse in their early lives, it is difficult to understand how either woman arrived on welfare or the multiple problems that persist as they leave the rolls. Yet neither considered raising such an intimate subject with their caseworkers.
Over the past 10 months, Rhoden, 35, an animated woman who has spent years on welfare, and Moore, 25, a former university student on welfare for the first time, each spoke at length about the shadows cast by early abuse.
Both said they were molested by a relative during their grade-school years.
Both said their families refused to believe them, compounding their isolation and dismay. Both contemplated suicide -- Rhoden made an attempt as a teen-ager -- and both continue to struggle with depression that interferes with their ability to hold jobs and form relationships.
Recalling the comfort she felt when she read "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Maya Angelou's autobiographical account of being raped as a child, Moore said she decided to discuss her past so other women would know they were not alone.
For Rhoden, the urge to talk seemed more visceral. When her abuser dies, she said, she plans to stand on his grave and proclaim, "You took my soul when I was young, so the Lord's going to take more than that from you."
Childhood sexual abuse is hard to quantify at any level of society. Different research techniques produce wildly different estimates. But new evidence suggests that it is much more prevalent among women on welfare than was previously understood: In some surveys, more than 40 percent say they were sexually abused as children.
Childhood sexual abuse is not confined to the poor, of course. Most researchers say it is more common at all income levels than generally understood. But welfare and sexual abuse are entwined in at least two ways.
Children who grow up poor, especially those with unmarried mothers, face an increased risk of being abused, most scholars say. They are more likely to live in dangerous neighborhoods or with adults impaired by alcohol or drugs.
In single-parent families, they are also more likely to be around unrelated men (such as their mothers' boyfriends), increasing the pool of potential abusers.
Abused children, in turn, are more likely to have problems that could lead them to welfare as adults.
And once on welfare, those whose abuse has caused other problems that researchers call common -- such as addiction, depression or relationships with violent men -- have a harder time leaving the rolls through stable jobs or marriages.
"A child from a deprived background is more likely to experience a lasting impact," said David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire and an authority on child sexual abuse.
Over the past decade, six surveys of welfare recipients have produced estimates of sexual abuse that are both diverse and strikingly high. In Paterson, N.J., 24 percent of the recipients surveyed said they were sexually abused as children. The figure was 25 percent in Michigan, 28 percent in Chicago, 38 percent in Washington state, 41 percent in Utah and 42 percent in Worcester, Mass.
It is difficult to make a precise comparison with the general population, because estimates about the extent of the problem there also vary widely.
Finkelhor said most experts now accept an estimate for the general population of 20 percent to 25 percent. By contrast, the median figure in the welfare studies was 33 percent.
Bill Curcio spent 20 years as a caseworker in Paterson without suspecting that abuse was a problem. "No one revealed it to me -- ever," he said. But when he began teaching an eight-week course to prepare women for the workplace, the subject arose constantly. "I didn't realize how much of it there was -- rape, sexual abuse, molestation," he said.
First impressions of Mary Rhoden yield no hint of her difficult past. "Excellent student!" her instructors wrote. "Very positive attitude."
But Rhoden has spent decades rebelling against anyone in authority -- the relative who molested her, the employers who hired her and the social workers who have offered to help. She is raising five children on an ever-shifting mixture of boyfriends, welfare and jobs. An underlying pattern persists: conflict, defiance and flight. "I don't take no bull off of nobody," she said.
The abuse, the depression, the men -- the real issues in Rhoden's life remained hidden from the welfare office.
While Rhoden answered her abuse by fleeing to the streets, Tanya Moore took flight by hiding behind walls of hostility and depression that she is just beginning to recognize.
In statistical terms, like Rhoden, Moore would be counted a welfare success. Refusing to join the work program, she found a part-time job on her own, as a clerk in a program intended to slow the spread of AIDS. But she remains poor (she earns $200 a week), depressed and constantly buffeted by feelings of betrayal.