In April 2010, she and her family were forced out of her Lewiston rental house because sewage backed up into the basement, leading the city to condemn the property. Adding to the disaster was a bedbug infestation that caused them to leave all of their belongings behind, including photos on the walls, her children's toys, and even pots and pans, the Sun Journal reported at the time. They moved to Portland, starting over with used furniture donated or bought cheaply at discount stores.

While these particular circumstances are unusual for public-assistance beneficiaries (or anyone else, for that matter), in terms of financial impact it closely mirrors divorce, separation, or fleeing domestic abuse — which are all major factors in sending people to seek TANF assistance. Nearly 25 percent of the respondents to the UNE-UMO study said they applied for help because of divorce, separation, or escaping an abusive relationship.

A few months after the newspaper coverage of her residential disaster and her accompanying threats to sue her landlord, Schidzig found herself indicted by an Androscoggin County grand jury for two felonies and three misdemeanors relating to "misuse of approximately $25,000 in TANF and ASPIRE benefits," according to a statement from the Maine Attorney General's office. Schidzig claims the charges resulted from the newspaper article's description of her boyfriend as living with the family when he in fact did not; the prosecution disagreed. If he was, he would be assumed to be contributing to household income, meaning she would be eligible for less aid.

Schidzig and her court-appointed attorney, Amanda Doherty of the Portland firm of Strike, Goodwin, and O'Brien, say they proposed a deal in which Schidzig would plead guilty to taking less than $10,000 (an amount that would mean her crime was a misdemeanor rather than a felony), but assistant attorney general Peter Black refused. Black, whose full-time job is investigating and prosecuting people suspected of welfare fraud, did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Schidzig ultimately pleaded "no contest," in which she did not admit guilt but did accept that the state's case was likely to prevail if it went to trial. At her sentencing hearing, she was stunned to learn that the state was suddenly alleging she took $49,000; Justice Kennedy refused the state's new estimate and ordered Schidzig to pay $18,000 in restitution, serve a year in prison, and be on probation for two years after her release.

Fewer prospects than ever

This is not where she expected to end up, Schidzig says through tears in a small meeting room near her cell. "I have worked all my life and I've gone to school for many years," she says. She teaches her kids to work hard and be honest. Looking at her file of paperwork chronicling the case against her, the court proceedings, and her prison records, she shakes her head, frustrated that rather than plea-bargaining (a common practice in criminal cases), she was accused of stealing more money than she says she even received in benefits.

"I didn't do that and it's ruined my life and it's ruined my kids' lives," she says, composing herself, and turning philosophical. "Maybe I had to lose one year of my life to gain the rest."

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