Kayla Leonard, only one day after her second birthday, reached her hand across to touch little John Jordan, three months old. Completely unaware of the situation that surrounded them, the two smiled at each other as they sat on their mothers' laps at the Dorchester House on Monday.
Ten feet away sat an influential panel of men in shirts and ties, two congressmen and two former congressmen. They were there to talk about the fate of children like Kayla and John, who may not have the heat needed to keep them healthy this upcoming winter.
The panel was led by Joseph P. Kennedy II of the Citizens Energy Corporation and released the findings of a Boston Medical Center report that directly ties the lack of home heating to sick and developmentally disabled children. Congressmen William Delahunt and Michael Capuano and former congressman Marty Meehan also sat on the panel.
The study linked the percentage of household income spent on heating a home for a Boston winter, and found that low-income families spent from four to ten times the 6 percent rate considered affordable. This forces some to pick between paying the heating bill or the rent, said the study, but in many cases food money can suffer. If a child's nutrients are reduced, their ability to stave off the cold is also reduced, making them a high risk for sickness and hospital visits.
Parallels were also drawn to the cuts of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which attempts to assist families in this situation. The conclusion was that youth in those families that qualify and don't receive the assistance are 32 percent more likely to be admitted to a hospital than those who receive assistance. There was a recent budget cut of 44 percent to federal fuel aid, despite 2006 statistics which show only 16.1 percent of eligible homes received help.
"It costs about $5,000 a day to have a child in the emergency room, and we could fill a lot of barrels of oil for that cost if we just kept our children from getting sick," said Dr. Deborah Frank, a lead investigator on the study. "This grim epidemic is going to affect a growing number of American children and we can see this coming."
John doesn't have enough weight on him to insulate his young body from the even the cool fall air, his mother, Rachel Jordan, explained. John's father is off fighting in Iraq, he left five days after his second child was born. Rachel, herself a veteran of Iraq, is living in Quincy to be close to her family, but will not be able to afford the heat to keep John's tiny three month frame from being sick, unless she gets help.
Kayla suffers from sickle cell disease, and her body requires extra warmth to keep her healthy, Frank said. As Kayla's mother, 25-year-old Ketline Leonard, spoke, she broke into tears and put her hands over her face, trying to explain to the congressmen how programs deny her assistance. She works full time and she said it appears she makes enough for her and Kayla, but programs like food stamps ignore the help she gives her sister and family, and the costs she cannot possibly afford making $10 an hour.
"It's hard because you know there a lot of people out there who know how to beat the system and you are just trying to make an honest effort with it," she said looking directly at her community leaders and a slew of television cameras. "I don't know what else to say, I'm just doing my best."
The congressmen were joined by a public health workers and community leaders, including City Council President Maureen Feeney and Councilor Sam Yoon, in signing a letter to the president asking him to replace cuts made to heating assistance. Feeney's office circulated two similar letters to the city council to sign on Wednesday, one addressed to President George W. Bush and one to Gov. Deval Patrick.