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TV special movingly dramatizes case history of homeless family

God Bless the Child ABC, tonight, 9-11 p.m. Stars: Mare Winningham, Dorian Harewood, Grace Johnston. Writer: Dennis Nemec. Co-producers: Dennis Nemec and Andras Hamori. Director: Larry Elikann. On the rare occasions when commercial television dares to face the truth with all the medium's potential skill and sensitivity, it has the power to touch the hearts and minds of millions of viewers. ``God Bless the Child'' is such a program. I promise that nobody who sees this drama will ever be able to consider the poverty and homelessness of others as distant and inexplicable.

This excruciatingly honest film, written, acted, and directed with overwhelming compassion and empathy, delves deeply into the roots of despair as it follows a poor mother and daughter from shelter to shelter in their search for a decent life. All they ask is a bed, a job for the mother, a school for the daughter.

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The film is painfully intimate as it follows their lives after they triumphantly find an apartment. And with them, the viewer comes to understand and love their poor neighbors. And we sympathize with them when they are forced to move after complaining to the landlord about the rats. Though the mother and daughter are white, there is much interaction with blacks living under similar conditions. Even the problems of teen pregnancy and generational welfare dependence are touched upon gingerly but straightforwardly.

Food stamps and welfare payments take on a new reality, as the viewer is forced to don the threadbare cloak of poverty, to walk in the worn-out shoes of homelessness.

Don't expect a strong plot, though. What story line there is sounds familiar, because ``God Bless the Child'' is basically a series of case histories that come to life vividly, violently, passionately. The program uses every truth-based clich'e in the book of poverty, illuminates them all so they make sense, and then thrusts them at the viewer with the breathtaking impact of revelation.

The spiral of poverty, according to a compassionate Outreach worker played by Dorian Harewood, grabs hold of you and won't let you go. He tries to help because in the mother, Theresa (played by Mare Winningham), he senses he is dealing with a person who is determined to break the spiral. But eventually the mother realizes that she must make the ultimate sacrifice - abandonment - to assure her daughter a better life.

All three principal roles are performed by Winningham, Harewood, and little Grace Johnston with exquisite restraint, making the piteous denouement even more powerful. And all three, as well as the drama itself, will undoubtedly prove to be strong candidates for Emmys.

At the end of the drama, viewers are informed that more than 32 million people in America live in poverty; and more than 13 million of them are children. ``God Bless the Child'' is a trenchant antidote for complacency in a society that must find solutions to homelessness. It will make you weep, but the tears will not be merely tears of pity; one hopes they will also be tears of determination to go out and do something to help.

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