SSI benefits wrongly halted for many Social Security review shows poor children often prevail on appeal


WASHINGTON -- Social Security officials have found evidence that the government improperly terminated disability benefits for many poor children, misinformed parents of their legal rights and actively discouraged some parents from appealing the decisions.

To remedy that situation, officials plan several changes. They said they would help parents find lawyers and would probably send notices to thousands of families giving them a new opportunity to challenge the loss of cash benefits.

Children who appeal have a good chance of success. They have won restoration of benefits in more than half the appeals decided to date, with especially high rates of success in Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, New York and New Jersey. But many families have missed the deadlines for appeals.

Social Security officials said they were not inclined to change the standards for evaluating children, as some in Congress have urged. But the procedural changes are significant and would represent a victory for the American Bar Association, which has recruited and trained lawyers around the country to help poor children fight the termination of disability benefits.

Jerome Shestack, president of the association, said that because of misleading and inaccurate information disseminated by Social Security officials, "parents have lost their rights without really knowing that they had rights."

Local bar associations, working with Social Security officials, are scrambling to set up toll-free numbers in every state so that parents can seek free legal assistance when any new notices are sent out.

The new commissioner of Social Security, Kenneth S. Apfel, had promised to do a "top-to-bottom review" of the disability program in his first 30 days on the job. In an interview, Apfel, who took office Sept. 29, said that he was still collecting and analyzing data.

"I don't see evidence to suggest that a majority of the reviews have been done unfairly or inaccurately, but there have clearly been some problems," Apfel said. "We want to correct them."

Alarmed at the rapid growth of the disability program, Congress tightened the eligibility criteria when it passed the 1996 welfare law. President Clinton issued a relatively strict interpretation of the new standards in February.

The benefits, paid under the supplemental security income program, average $436 a month, or $5,232 a year. They help families pay for food, clothing, shelter and the extra costs of caring for disabled children.

Social Security officials have re-examined 236,586 children and cut off disability benefits for 60 percent of them, or 142,395. In addition, the government has denied 225,578 new claims, or 68 percent of those filed since Clinton signed the law in August 1996.

But data collected in Apfel's review show that children often prevail on appeal, winning in 57 percent of the 10,508 cases decided to date. Some of the children have multiple impairments, including severe mental retardation, diabetes, cerebral palsy and AIDS.

Disability rights advocates say the high reversal rate shows pervasive problems in decision-making by the government. But Social Security officials predict that a larger proportion of their decisions will be upheld in the future.

Conservatives praise the administration for the way it has carried out the law. Rep. Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican, said Social Security officials had done "an exemplary job" of paring the rolls.

Democrats and moderate Republicans have criticized Clinton's policies. Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said the administration had increased the suffering of poor disabled children -- "the most vulnerable in our society" -- by adopting standards more stringent than Congress intended.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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