City agency sued over appeal rights

Lawyer says welfare recipients `rebuffed' by social services staff

March 17, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Lawyers who represent welfare recipients in Baltimore yesterday filed a class action lawsuit against the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, claiming the agency has effectively denied the appeal rights of thousands of recipients who have had benefits cut off.

The suit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court by the Family Investment Program legal clinic, named as its lead plaintiff an East Baltimore mother of four who in January lost food stamps and a welfare grant of $443 a month. Social workers had told her they stopped benefits because she failed to see a child-support worker about her youngest daughter.

When Lisa Tusing tried to appeal -- a legal right welfare recipients have -- supervisors told her she would have to reapply for benefits instead, according to the lawsuit. Tusing, 26, wasn't able to keep her benefits while trying to appeal, even though she made appeal requests within the 10 days required by law.

Tusing also was denied emergency food stamps, the lawsuit claims, even though state and federal regulations call for "expedited" food stamps to a household with less than $100 in savings and less than $150 in gross monthly income.

State officials agreed yesterday to reinstate Tusing's benefits until her case can be resolved. But other clients have complained of similar problems for the past year and a half, said J. Peter Sabonis, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which runs the FIP clinic.

Sabonis said, "We think it's because people aren't properly informed of their appeal rights. Even if they attempt to make an appeal, they're rebuffed by the department."

Sabonis said he has been meeting with the department since November 1998 to try to resolve the problems. At first, the department responded with a letter that said it would take "immediate action to reinforce with staff" the need to conform to the appeal procedure.

But the action the department took -- instructing staff that welfare clients had to meet with supervisors -- was itself in error, according to the complaint.

Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the social services department, said supervisors get involved not because they're trying to impede appeals, but because they're trying to resolve problems before they get to that stage.

She said, "People don't necessarily need to appeal. They're interested in me calling somebody and getting their problem fixed. Those people aren't counted in the data."

Steven Keller, an assistant state attorney general representing the department, said caseworkers were most recently reminded of clients' right to appeal last week, after Sabonis threatened to sue. Staffers were instructed that clients who wanted to appeal and wanted to discuss their cases with supervisors would have to wait no longer than 15 minutes.

But more investigation into Tusing's case and others is necessary, Keller said.

"We're going to have to determine what the magnitude of the problem is and come up with some real solution," he said.

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