Women challenge welfare cutoffs in lawsuit: Colorado FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 6 Mar 1999 14:32:08 -0800 (PST)


FWD  [URL & date from recent article missing: sorry.]

WOMEN CHALLENGE WELFARE SYSTEM

Lawsuit claims state and counties sent vague warning,
then illegally punished thousands

By Carla Crowder
News Staff Writer


Frances Weston just wanted to show the welfare workers a doctor's note.

The 54-year-old grandmother has diabetes and high blood pressure and
recently had a heart attack. She thought the doctor's note would show that
she couldn't work and Social Services would stop reducing her check.

Instead, within four months, Weston's welfare check for her five
grandchildren dropped from $590 a month to nothing. She never fully
understood why she was losing the benefits or how she could fix it.

Now Weston is one of three women suing the state and Denver and Adams
counties over the way their cases were handled.

Four Denver law firms are representing the three women for free. The
attorneys hope to turn the case into a class-action lawsuit; they say more
than 1,000 welfare recipients have illegally punished.

The lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in Denver District Court, accuses
the three entities of illegally "sanctioning" or punishing thousands of
welfare recipients by sending vague computer-generated letters that don't
tell recipients what they've done wrong.

"These people want to participate. They want to comply. And they would if
they knew what they were supposed to do," said Chris Beall, one of the
attorneys representing the women.

State and county welfare officials declined comment Wednesday, saying they
had not had a chance to review the lawsuit.

In the past, welfare managers said they were working to remedy shortcomings
in the sanction notices. They've said they're trying to be fair, but many
recipients refused to follow welfare reform's new rules.

The first notices contained erroneous information about appeals. They also
read like  multiple-choice quizzes, say attorneys for recipients who have
been fighting this issue for months.

The notices told recipients they were losing benefits either because they
failed to work, failed to prove their children were immunized or failed to
help the state collect their child support, but not which one.

Officials of the state Department of Human Services, who oversee county
welfare programs, repeatedly have warned counties that they must give
recipients details about the sanctions. If not, the sanctions are illegal
and can be reversed if a recipient gets a lawyer and appeals.

But many counties have not heeded this warning, said Maureen Farrell,
director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which has been working
on the issue since spring.

The lawsuit "is not about challenging welfare reform. Our system as it's
set up can be a good one. But you've got to balance fairness and
flexibility," Farrell said Wednesday.

Beall said the lawsuit asks that welfare benefits be restored to people who
were illegally sanctioned. It also asks the state to revise the notices.

"The old ones were bad, give the money back. The new ones are bad, stop
using them. And in the future, get your act together," Beall said.

He thinks most recipients don't know their rights. They've silently dropped
off the welfare rolls without challenging their social workers.

It's taken many lawyers and government officials to figure out how the
sanction rules work. A young mother with barely a high school education
stands little chance against this mystery, attorneys say.

The sanctions are progressive. After the first violation, recipients lose a
quarter of their allowance, then half, then the entire stipend.

"The consequences of these (notification) procedures are draconian, and if
you're unable to figure out these notices in time, you're going to lose a
lot of money and might even be on the streets," Beall said.

In fact, two of the plaintiffs are homeless, according to the lawsuit,
including Weston, who was evicted from her apartment in October.

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