We live in Connecticut, the wealthiest state in the country. Most of us, as Connecticut Working Moms, do not live in poverty. We don’t even know any mothers living in poverty.
My job is to represent poor people, to help them attain eligibility for government benefits or to keep them from losing those benefits. So I know a lot of people who live in poverty. Unless you are exposed to the world of government benefits, you cannot imagine how awful it is. I want to share what happened to one of my clients.
She was 20 years old, homeless and pregnant. The Department of Social Services (DSS) rules require her to attend employment workshops at the Department of Labor as a condition of receiving $333 per month in government cash assistance.
Remember I said she was homeless. So how did DSS notify her of these workshops? It sent her a letter. When someone has no home address, DSS sends the letter to itself, and expects her to know it’s there waiting for her.
Then, when she failed to attend the workshop of which she was never notified, DSS had to punish her by taking away that $333 per month. That’s what the rules say they must do to a pregnant homeless person.
A few years ago, the legal aid organizations in Connecticut sued DSS because it was not accommodating people with disabilities, as the law provides. The case was settled and DSS agreed to help people with disabilities, including learning disabilities and mental health disabilities. The trick was that the person had to identify him/herself as a disabled person before DSS’s responsibility to help them kicked in. That’s hard for people to do.
However, even if a person never identified herself as disabled, there was a point in the process where DSS would be obliged to explore that possibility with her. That was when the person was about to be punished, or “sanctioned,” for violating a rule. There are specific questions that must be asked before DSS staff decides to take the person’s benefits away. There is a form to be filled out by the DSS worker to show those questions were asked.
When I met with my client, I knew immediately there was some sort of disability at play. Am I a medical professional? Not at all, but I can tell when someone is confused. We talked about her childhood, and I asked if she had ever been in special education classes. “No,” she said. She had attended the Waterbury public school system, where being found eligible for special education happens just a little more frequently than being hit by lightning.
“Well, did you have any problems in school, learning the math, reading, doing your homework?” I asked. “Oh, yeah, now that you mention it, I had a lot of trouble remembering stuff, and I had a special piece of equipment to help me go over the lessons at home.” She dropped out of school in the 8th grade because she wasn’t doing well and didn’t see the point in continuing.
We requested a hearing to challenge the ending of her cash benefits. By that time, she was 8 months pregnant. At the hearing, I asked the DSS worker if she filled out the form before imposing the punishment – the form that says she must ask the client whether she has any learning problems or other difficulties understanding rules. “Oh yes, I always do that.” I asked for a copy of it. I was not surprised when it could not be found.
The fact that the form could not be located, I felt, was such a fatal flaw in the sanctioning process that my client had a chance to prevail. From my point of view, it’s the equivalent of a policeman not being able to prove he read an alleged perpetrator her Miranda rights. If you can’t prove you complied with the requirements, then it didn’t happen.
We lost. The hearing officer NEVER MENTIONED the missing form or DSS’s obligation to inquire about a disability before sanctioning. She refused to acknowledge that the information about the workshops my client failed to attend had never reached her, due to her being homeless. The hearing officer decided my client wasn’t homeless at the time the notices were sent, even though DSS’s own records show that she was.
Some may say, “Everyone has to follow the rules if they want government assistance.” I do not disagree with this thinking, but built right into the DSS rules is the concept of “good cause,” or “circumstances beyond one’s control.” My client was not notified of the meetings. When she learned her money was about to be cut off and went to DSS to find out why, no one asked her the required questions to see if her disabling problems had played a part in her failure to comply with the rules. Yet the hearing officer found there was no good cause for missing the meetings, claiming that she could not possibly be disabled because she was never found eligible for special education.
So this is what we do in wealthy Connecticut. We fail to provide a child with the services she needs in elementary school. She feels lost and drops out. She has no family supports (except for a grandma who kicked her out because her lease did not allow anyone else to stay there and grandma was afraid of losing her apartment). She gets pregnant, has nowhere to live, no mailing address and no money. She doesn’t attend a meeting because she doesn’t know it exists. DSS fails to follow its own rules and does not explore this young woman’s possible problems. We go to a hearing held by a hearing officer employed by the Department of Social Services and ask her to uphold the law, which would require her to rule against the Department of Social Services, her employer. Not surprisingly, she rules against my client. As a result, the State of Connecticut saves $333 for a few months.
I’m not saying my client should not have had to follow the rules. I am saying she COULD NOT follow the rules, due to circumstances beyond her control. It was DSS who failed to follow its own rules.
You are all taxpayers. Does this seem appropriate to you – punishing this young woman to save that $333 for a few months?