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Homemakers hold families together. N.Y.C. sends corps of helpers to assist families with basics

Fannie Kennedy laughs when she hears all the labels that could be applied to her - grandmother, teacher, sister, protector - as she walks with her ``family'' on a shopping excursion down Lorimar Street. But homemaker is the name that applies professionally. Miss Kennedy, a tall, sturdy woman who frequently erupts in jolly laughter, comes five days a week to help Alfred and Maria, the blind parents of three lively children. Kennedy is one of a corps of workers here in New York City who tend to poor families needing stability in their lives.

The service is mandated by the city for families with problems such as physical or mental illness, drug abuse, or the death of a parent.

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Homemakers perform such basic tasks as getting children ready for school, teaching young mothers how to care for a new baby, helping disabled parents learn to cook, and reading to children whose parents are illiterate. Well-off Americans can hire housekeepers or nannies when help is needed. In cases like Alfred and Maria's [the family name is omitted upon request], a Miss Kennedy is the bulwark that keeps the family together and the children out of foster care.

``It's a very fundamental, very front-line service,'' says Philip Coltoff, executive director of the Children's Aid Society, one of the nonprofit agencies that contracts with the city-funded service.

When the idea was first introduced over 40 years ago, homemakers usually came on a short-term basis to homes where a parent was ill or recently widowed. Today, says Mr. Coltoff, problems of poor families in cities like New York are more complicated. He points to the increase in substance abuse, the increasing number of teen-agers with two and three children, the prevalence of dilapidated housing without heat, windows, or proper security.

Though a homemaker is not sent in to take notes on a family, he or she can be a valuable eye and ear to detect family needs. There have been a few cases where child abuse has been spotted by a homemaker, and a child has subsequently been taken from that home. But the service is more often preventive.

There are myriad programs seeking to deal with the distressing problems of the more than 25 percent of city children who live in poverty. The role of homemakers has changed and become more important, Mary Hutson of the Children's Aid Society says, as the number of children in foster care has exploded. Today some 20,000 children are in foster care. On any given day, an estimated 1,200 families receive homemaker services that seek to put a family back on its feet. Often families resist and resent a stranger coming into their homes and ``meddling'' in their lives, but many come to appreciate the workers' help. Kennedy first came to Alfred and Maria nearly three years ago. Both she and Maria admit it was rough going at first. Maria was ill and not receiving proper medical care. The home was chaotic. Even today, Maria is not able to go out by herself, so Kennedy helps her with shopping, washing, cooking, and cleaning.

``That [cleaning] is not getting any better,'' says Kennedy, raising her eyebrows. The kids, she says making sure they are in earshot, do not always do their chores. Looking sheepish, Mindalia, 11, Steven, 7, and Antonio, 5, all promise they will do better.

Alfred works daily at the Lighthouse, an organization for the blind, in Long Island City in Queens. Each day he and his guide dog Gavin take a subway to work, where he helps put together brooms.

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Having a homemaker is ``very important,'' says Alfred. When he is at work, he is assured that his family will be able to get to appointments or meet emergencies.

Kennedy goes through the life that Maria could not cope with on her own. She sighs at the everyday problems the family has to face in addition to their disability. The laundry machines down the hall are often broken and the nearest laundromat is some blocks away. Teenagers loiter in the hallway and sometimes play rough.

It is obvious there is much love in this family. But it is also obvious that Kennedy's services are crucial. She adds stability in day-to-day life, demonstrates firmness in dealing with the children, and teaches them responsibility. She helps the blind parents deal with the sometimes bewildering outside world.

More and more social service providers recognize homemaking services as a cost-effective preventive program for families. Part of the reason their particular program is successful, says Ms. Hutson at Children's Aid Society, is the model they use. Homemakers, who often come from neighborhoods similar to the ones they serve in, are not highly paid, earning an average of $12,000 a year. They usually do not have college educations, but they understand and know how their clients live. Training is intensive and ongoing, and homemakers are treated as professionals, with full employee benefits.

A crucial link in the program is the social worker that works in tandem with the homemaker and family. Mike Thorn works with a homemaker who helps a widowed father care for his four children in Brooklyn.

Mr. Thorn admits that working closely with the homemaker helps him get a better feel for the family.

``Sometimes the homemakers know more than we do,'' says Thorn. He adds that many homemakers are more tolerant of cultural differences, and they have taught him to be more accepting.

The Children's Aid Society notes that though the program is considered cost efficient considering the other options, it is still an expensive program and they operate it at a deficit. Currently they serve 62 families with an average size of nearly six family members. The cost per family per year comes to $21,000. The city, though enthusiastic about homemaker services, is also budget conscious, and looks to ways to save. For example, new regulations require that homes have to be checked by case workers only once every three months.

``That's disturbing with the kind of families we see,'' says Eulala King, director of foster-care services at the Children's Aid Society, which has kept its own minimum requirement of sending in case workers at least once a month. Frequently it is more often than that.

``We try to keep families together - and independent,'' Mrs. King says.

Alfred and Maria will likely continue to need a homemaker for some time. But Kennedy, who has been a homemaker for 11 years, is proud.

``I go more than a mile with this family,'' Kennedy says. ``But I enjoy what I do. I like to see progress. Progress will make you do a lot.''

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