Fall 2015 Groundviews: Changing systems, changing lives

Imagine you’re a single mom with a permanent physical disability – waiting for federal disability benefits to be approved – and are told you’ve reached your cash assistance lifetime limit. Or maybe you’re struggling to make ends meet, using food assistance, only to be told you were “overpaid” and have to pay back benefits from the last six months. Where can you turn?

Solid Ground's team of Benefits Attorneys

Solid Ground’s team of Benefits Attorneys (l to r: Stephanie Earhart, Katie Scott and Sara Robbins) just might be able to help. Serving both individuals and families, our attorneys primarily represent people having difficulties accessing or maintaining state benefits from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

But it doesn’t stop there: Beyond helping people access benefits, our attorneys work with DSHS to make the system more equitable for thousands of people across our region.

From individual to systemic advocacy

Lead Benefits Attorney Stephanie Earhart explains, “We’re in DSHS Region 2, covering five counties from King all the way to the Canadian border. We meet quarterly with the Regional DSHS Administrator to tell them what we’re seeing on the ground. And if we make complaints or say we need systems change, they listen.”

One type of case our attorneys deal with is families applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance. In Washington state, there’s a 60-month lifetime TANF limit and very few ways to qualify for an extension. These include families experiencing domestic violence, adults living with severe and chronic disabilities, and people taking care of a child or adult living with a disability.

Yet Stephanie and her team noticed that these extensions were often denied for people who were clearly eligible. “We were seeing two problems: people eligible for the family violence extension weren’t getting it, and people eligible for the disability extension weren’t getting it.”

Through outreach events, trainings and lectures, Stephanie publicized the time limit extension availability and our willingness to appeal denials: “If your family has zero income, somebody disabled in the household, or somebody dealing with family violence, they should still be on TANF. Period.” After several favorable decisions overturning TANF extension denials, Stephanie and her team set their sights on change at the policy level.

Collaborating for success

Teaming up with other advocates from the Northwest Justice Project, they facilitated a meeting in Olympia with DSHS administrators and the Attorney General’s office. “We have really good working relationships with them, and they know that we don’t come to them lightly,” says Stephanie. “So this year, when we advocated for DSHS to rewrite its policy manual around the family violence time limit extension, they took our concerns seriously and improved the way they screen clients for this exception and staff training on the issue.”

Lead Benefits Attorney Stephanie Earhart consults with a client

Lead Benefits Attorney Stephanie Earhart consults with a client

Also, our attorneys convinced DSHS to clarify how disabilities cases should be handled. As a result of their recommendations, DSHS changed the law to include a new disability time limit extension. “They actually agreed to do it, which was huge! I nearly fell out of my seat when I found out,” Stephanie recalls. So now, if a family member meets the eligibility criteria for ABD (Aged, Blind or Disabled), they can get a TANF extension.

“The work we’re doing is very real,” says Stephanie. “I’ve learned so much from the people we serve. Any of us could end up in a hard situation at some point, and it means everything to me that I can do this work now.”

The same end goals

Currently, our attorneys are working to ensure that state food assistance recipients aren’t saddled with unpayable debt when DSHS miscalculates their benefits. According to federal law, recipients are liable for any overpayment of food assistance even if the overpayment was caused exclusively by DSHS’s mistakes. For families living on the edge of poverty, repaying this debt is usually impossible.

Our attorneys represent people facing this situation in hearings and negotiations with the Office of Financial Recovery to show financial hardship and get the entire overpayment waived or put on a payment plan. While helpful on a case-by-case basis, this strategy doesn’t solve the systemic problem: Many people who qualify for a hardship waiver don’t even know about our services or that such a waiver exists.

So now, Stephanie and a Northwest Justice Project attorney are collaborating with the Attorney General’s office, the Office of Financial Recovery and DSHS to rewrite the policy manual regarding overpayments and hardship waivers. “The hope is that DSHS will analyze hardship when they assess overpayments, rather than waiting for clients to raise the issue, which is not something the current regulations require them to do,” she says.

“That’s why our working relationship with DSHS is really important; we can go a lot farther by collaborating. When you sit down at a table, especially with the policy makers, you realize they often want the same things that we do for our clients.”

For more info on Family Assistance, contact 206.694.6742 or familyassistance@solid-ground.org.

‘Changing systems, changing lives’ is the lead article from Solid Ground’s Fall 2015 print newsletter. Sign up here to receive the entire newsletter by snail mail! 

The Human Dignity Support Project: Building bridges between services & recipients

Juanita Maestas, HDSP founder, and Lee, HDSP tech expert and volunteer

Juanita Maestas, HDSP founder, and Lee, HDSP tech expert and volunteer

After nearly abandoning her own battle for government assistance, Juanita Maestas – founder of the Human Dignity Support Project (HDSP) and a Statewide Poverty Action Network board member – took up the fight for others desperately striving to overcome the cycle of denial that runs unchecked through the government assistance application and receipt process.

Unsure of how to continue after being denied once again – this time for failing to fill out forms properly – Juanita just sat in the DSHS (Department of Social & Health Services) lobby and watched people plod out after their own appointments with caseworkers. Applicant after applicant shuffled by muttering similar accounts: “They’re going to deny me again,” or “I didn’t turn this in in time.”

Juanita saw a pattern that was invisible when looking only at her own experience. “I listened to everyone’s story and I thought, ‘They need help.’ That’s why I started the Human Dignity Support Project.”

A system of hurdles & barriers

Many assistance program acceptance practices are bound by strict rules and policies designed to prevent abuse and fraud. More than anything, however, this system makes it incredibly difficult for those needing help to receive the benefits they are entitled to. A cycle of denial is the usual outcome – a constant refusal of services based on mundane mistakes and misunderstandings that leave applicants and recipients feeling defeated and hopeless. In addition, they experience disrespectful interactions with staff, misinformation, long wait times, and inability to contact caseworkers in understaffed offices.

“When you’ve been denied, it’s frustrating and heartbreaking,” Juanita disclosed, “because these people are trying their best, but employees don’t take the time to help them. They don’t take them aside and say, ‘Hey, you forgot to get this,’ or ‘You didn’t sign that.’ They don’t explain anything to them. They just automatically deny them and force them to start the whole process over again.”

Witnessing as an antidote to gatekeeping

HDSP is a volunteer-operated project that works to overcome the barriers of the application and receipt process by providing motivation and moral encouragement, reducing isolation, and accompanying the applicants and recipients to appointments to act as witnesses.

At an initial meeting, HDSP volunteers explain the process and go over all the necessary documentation, making sure everything needed is accounted for and signed properly so they have no reason to be denied.

“Runners” act as witnesses at the appointments by recording information and interactions that can be used later in cases of disrespectful behavior or to refute baseless denials. If applicants or recipients are denied or lose benefits, HDSP volunteers provide guidance on overcoming such barriers even if that means looking into other options.

Advocates for self-advocacy

Support extends beyond cultivating an atmosphere of respect at appointments and ensuring the participants receive assistance. “We’re here for the participants to be sure they have someone to fall back on,” Juanita emphasized. “It’s important to act as a bridge between services. My participants know there are other sources of help out there. We show them how to take the initiative and to call around even though they’ve been told by DSHS that there’s no help for them.”

HDSP encourages confidence by nurturing potential and guiding participants towards self-reliance, independence and capability. Participants learn to take an active role in their well-being, and through this process, develop a sense of dignity and self-respect.

Volunteers urge participants to use their experience and knowledge about the system by acting as witnesses for future applicants. According to Juanita, participants are eager to “keep it going.” Moreover, participants are encouraged to share their stories with legislators to make changes to the system and give back to the community.

The Human Dignity Support Project is operated by volunteers who donate their time and resources to the project. Your donations are greatly appreciated and help the project pay for office supplies, travel and other expenses.

If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information, please visit our website at www.hdsp.org, leave a voice mail with a return number at 206.388.5000, or email humandignitysp2013@gmail.com.

Report from the frontlines of social justice

Editor’s note: Cody Fenton-Robertson is a law school student at Seattle University. He spent this past summer interning with Solid Ground’s Family Assistance Program, which provides free legal assistance regarding public benefits. This account of his time with us is taken, with Cody’s permission, from SU’s Public Interest Law Foundation Journal Project website.


Cody Fenton-Robertson was one of two legal interns who worked alongside Family Assistance’s attorneys during summer 2012 to provide free legal assistance to people regarding public benefits. The interns at Solid Ground do much of the same work that the attorneys do: They conduct intake interviews, research issues, request and comb through discovery (i.e., material which may lead to admissible evidence), and represent clients in administrative hearings. Cody was extremely excited to have the opportunity to intern at Solid Ground because of his larger desire to work in public interest law and provide legal assistance to groups of people who have been marginalized by our society. The internship at Solid Ground also allowed Cody to gain experience working and communicating with clients, a skill that Cody believes to be invaluable to his future career goals.

June, 2012
Early on in my internship at Solid Ground, I discovered a single sentence in the Washington Administrative Code that killed a case I was working on. Because of this particular WAC, my client had no argument to make to prevent DSHS from cutting his family’s benefits. After discussing the case and my research with a supervising attorney, the attorney agreed with my analysis.

“Now you have to call the client and tell him that his case has no legal merit and that we will not be representing him in his fair hearing,” said my supervising attorney.

I knew coming into this internship that I would be working with people who were truly in a state of need and desperation. I did not realize how frequently I would have to tell people in such a state that there is nothing I or anyone else could do to help them.

On that particular day, it was not only my first time making such a call, but it was my first time calling a client through an interpreter service. My first attempt at calling the client was cut short when the client was dropped from the conference call. I tried again, and again found myself in a two-way call with only myself and the interpreter. Eventually I got both the client and an interpreter on the phone at the same time, and I told him the bad news.

Of course, he did not understand. He didn’t understand because the law does not make sense, and because the application of the law feels unfair. I empathized with him and apologized, and then I heard the interpreter apologize in my client’s language. I didn’t need the interpreter to understand the client’s last word before the conversation ended: “Okay.”

It was the sound of a man’s frustration at realizing his only choice was to accept the unfair answer. I thanked the interpreter and hung up the phone. I left the internship that day feeling defeated.

I want to work in public interest law because I want to help people. Before starting this internship, I didn’t realize how often that would entail telling people that I could not help them. For every five calls I get on our intake line, one, maybe two, are cases that our office can accept. The rest are cases that I either have to refer elsewhere or are cases where I can immediately tell there is no legal merit. Of the cases our office accepts, at least half of them turn out to be unwinnable once we get discovery from DSHS. If the case looks like there is legal merit, there is still the possibility that the ALJ will disagree.

It can be depressing to think about.

But even so, I have found this internship incredibly rewarding. Aside from the value derived from the immense amount of practical experience I am getting in speaking with clients and drafting letters to adverse parties and requesting discovery and conducting investigations of sorts, there is another kind of value to this internship. The clients are incredibly thankful. I have had clients call in and, after listening to their story and determining what their legal issue is, I have had to tell them there is nothing we can do and explain why. Even so, those clients have still been immensely thankful and just happy to have someone explain the reason behind what was happening.

So I guess one of the things I have taken from my internship at Solid Ground so far is that “helping people” has a broader definition than I originally thought. Sometimes helping can just be listening.

July, 2012
Opposing DSHS in fair hearings is a lot like playing blackjack with a dealer who can rewrite the rules as he likes. We can call out DSHS for cheating, but if we do it enough times, they will just rewrite the rules to make it so what they are doing is no longer cheating.

The Washington Administrative Code states that DSHS must supply a petitioner with his or her hearing packet (the evidence being used against them) no later than five days before their hearing. Time and time again, this rule is broken. Pro se litigants are given their hearing packets as they step into the hearing, and they have no idea that they were supposed to get the evidence days earlier, or that they have a right to ask for a continuance. Instead, they go through the hearing without any knowledge of the laws or evidence being used to deny or terminate the benefits they rely on to survive. It is truly infuriating.

This summer, our office at Solid Ground has adopted a new policy: We are no longer smiling and being friendly while the DSHS hearing representatives break the law in ways that are prejudicial to our clients. We have begun aggressively filing motions to compel discovery and holding prehearing conferences with ALJs in order to get DSHS’s misbehavior on the record. We want the Office of Administrative Hearings to understand that if a client with representation has to make such aggressive gestures just to get the hearing packet that is required by law, then the 98% of petitioners who are appearing pro se have absolutely no chance at a “fair hearing.”

This new policy has allowed for me to gain some great experiences. I have written, argued, and won motions to compel discovery. I have been able to inconvenience the lives of people who seem to be bending backwards to incorrectly apply the law and break the rules. However, our office is working under a constant fear. If we make too big a stink, if we make DSHS work too hard, the department might just rewrite the rules. The department will amend the WAC to say that that the department does not owe our clients discovery until 30 minutes before the hearing.

So there is a tightrope we are walking. We want to stir up enough dust to encourage a change in behavior, but not enough dust to catch Olympia’s attention.

Meanwhile, my caseload has expanded to over 20 cases. I have a hearing next week that I have yet to get discovery for (surprise, surprise), and a massive hearing the week after that I have been preparing for nonstop for the past week.

This work is infuriating, frustrating, never-ending, and I really enjoy it.

Reaching Solid Ground: An unexpected world

Dan Terrance, a former participant in Solid Ground’s Family Assistance Program, shared his story with us for our July 2011 Groundviews newsletter. To read the entire issue, visit our Publications webpage.

Dan Terrance-Alaska dock

A vintage snapshot of Dan Terrance, Family Assistance program participant, during his Alaskan fishing industry days.

If anyone can vouch for the reality that there are holes in the social services safety net, it’s Dan Terrance. He learned the hard way about assumptions our society makes about people living in poverty, and the dehumanizing effect this has. Back in 2005, a fall on the job shattered his left arm and ended his 21-year maritime career: as a Merchant Marine, then on cruise ships, and then on fishing boats. “Six surgeries later,” he says, “I ran out of money – and this shoulder started to act up two years ago – and the next thing you know, you’re in a world that you’d never expect to be in.” A hardworking, college-educated, former world traveler, Dan spiraled into homelessness, with public assistance as his only source of income.

While the surgeries restored some use of his arm, his shoulder is inoperable. Dan describes his injury: “What I’ve got, it’s a soft tissue injury, the tendons are all messed up – and because it hasn’t been taken care of, it’s just deteriorating. Basically, it can’t be fixed. Steroid injections, they don’t work. They put me on pain pills. Physical therapy just made it worse – so I was just stuck.”

Fight for restored dignity

Dan first connected with Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program – whose staff attorneys provide free legal help to people being unjustly denied public assistance benefits – when he was fighting to prove to the Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS) that he couldn’t go back to the fishing industry. DSHS wanted to cut his Disability Lifeline benefits for people unable to work.

“DSHS, from the get go, said there’s nothing wrong with me. They had me have an assessment. Their doctor said there’s pretty much nothing wrong with me that aspirins can’t cure.” But the pain he experienced told him otherwise. So, he says, “I stayed persistent at it. Then I got an MRI in November of 2009 that showed that I had serious problems.” So, finally, his benefits were temporarily extended.

But then a year later, DSHS determined him no longer incapacitated. So after consulting with Family Assistance Senior Attorney Stephanie Earhart, Dan successfully defended himself at an Administrative Hearing, and his benefits were restored once again. “I won because [DSHS] tried to say that I could go back to doing the work that I did. Now the fishing industry is the most vicious, hardest work there is. And I don’t care what your job position: Everybody has to be physically capable on a ship for emergencies – you cannot be up there with a bad limb – you become hazardous to your fellow crew members. And the judge sided with me.”

Dan T. holding his artwork

Born in Alaska, Dan holds a piece of his artwork in the Haida/Tlingit style.

A world of hurt

After he won his hearing, Dan spent his time productively, studying to get MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) certification, volunteering with the Pike Market Food Bank and maintaining computers in the Senior Center there, and creating his native Alaskan artwork. But then, while taking a shower at the men’s shelter where he was staying, he says, “I got a backpack stolen: laptop, all my schooling, my medical records, my drawings, cell phone, my pain pills. I gotta start all over again.”

Things seemed to be looking up when he moved out of the shelter into low-income housing in late October 2010, but then he learned in November that his benefits were going to be cut again, because he hadn’t returned paperwork. As it turns out, DSHS had mistakenly sent the paperwork to the men’s shelter where he no longer lived, and then penalized him for their mistake.

“Without my money, I can’t pay my rent; without paying my rent, I’m going to get evicted. So then what they’re doing is putting you right back out on the street, in harm’s way.” To make matters worse, DSHS “… began to say that my MRI was irrelevant. Within months, it was too old!” So he had to fight to get another MRI, costing $3,000.

With all of this stress, something had to give – and in January 2011, Dan suffered a heart attack. “I was here at six in the morning, waiting to do my maintenance on these computers, and it felt like a fire poker going right into the center of my chest.” Yet just a week later, with bandages still on his surgical wounds and no money for bus fare, he found himself walking over a mile uphill to obtain medical records, because DSHS demanded he prove he had a heart attack. When he got to the hospital office, he learned it would cost $1 a page to print his records – and there were 40 pages. Hospital staff, realizing his desperation, printed it for free.

At the breaking point now, Dan got back in touch with Stephanie. “I called her and said, ‘I’m in a world of hurt with these people.’ ”

Navigating the system

Dan says, “Stephanie knows the system, she knows what’s right, how to take care of things. She kept saying, ‘This is outRAGEous!’ So, she immediately sends a request for an extension. And then she got me in touch with Tony [a Family Assistance Legal Intern]. And then after that, it was all phones and emails and letters. ‘Can you do this?’ And I’d do it. And he would ask me to fill this out so he could get medical records, so I’d fill this out and send it back.

“They saved me a world of all that grief, stress. And I suppose they do that for a lot of other people. I still don’t know the system! And I finally got the MRI in July. As this radiologist says, it’s worsened since the last MRI. They found me incapacitated for another year. And so Stephanie and Tony got them off my back. They handled all the interoffice communications. So that’s what they did for me; they got the stress off.

“This was a completely honest injury, on the job. There’s a lot of people in a bad way that are not there because of drugs, alcohol or crime. It’s just the facts of life. And anyone could end up there.

“Here I am, five years later, six surgeries later, trying to get back into the workforce, trying to get a home going, a daily ritual. I do what I can, I volunteer. I give back what I can so I’m not just leaching off the system. And without their help, who knows where I would be.”

For more information about Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program, contact Senior Attorney Stephanie Earhart at 206.694.6714 or familyassistance@solid-ground.org, or visit www.solid-ground.org/Programs/Legal/Family.

Court Stops DSHS from Cutting Food Assistance for Legal Immigrants

(Editor’s note: This information comes straight from Columbia Legal Services, who have taken the lead in challenging WA State DSHS’ attempt to end Basic Food benefits to legal immigrants in the state.)

WA State EBT cardOn January 27, 2011, a federal court stopped DSHS from terminating state-funded, Basic Food benefits to more than 10,000 Washington households who had been told that their state food assistance would end February 1, 2011. The court must still decide whether DSHS can cut the Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants in the future.

Following are step-by-step instructions for folks who expected to have their benefits cut:

1. Did you get a letter from DSHS stating your food assistance was being cut because of lack of funding? If so, you should check the balance on your Quest card to make sure you get your February benefits on the day you normally get your food benefits added to your card. The last digit of your Client ID# is the day of the month that DSHS adds food benefits to your Quest card. (If the number is zero, than you get benefits on the 10th of the month.) On this day, call DSHS toll-free at 1.888.328.9271 or visit the local DSHS office.

2. Does DSHS have your citizenship or immigration status correct? You should make sure that DSHS has correct citizenship or immigration status information for each member of your household by calling DSHS or visiting the local DSHS office. DSHS needs this information to see if you qualify for federal food benefits. DSHS will not share this information with immigration authorities.

3. What should you do if you do not get February food benefits or no longer have a Quest card? If you do not get your February food benefits or need a replacement Quest card, ask DSHS for help. Call or visit the local DSHS office. If you need more help, call Columbia Legal Services toll-free at 1.800.260.6260, ext. 207. There is more information on the Columbia Legal Services website.

Disability Lifeline appeals beyond August 2010

We want to clarify a recent post on this blog about how to appeal termination notices for Disability Lifeline benefits in Washington state.

While a first round of termination notices was mailed in August, 2010, termination notices will continue to be mailed to folks as they reach the 24-month limit.

Regardless of when you get a termination notice, you will have to register your appeal by the end of that month if you want to keep your benefits coming until your appeal is ruled upon.

You can appeal during a 90-day time frame, but if you do not appeal during the month you get your notification, your benefits will not continue during the time you are waiting for your fair hearing.

Please go back to the original post for details on how to appeal.

You can appeal termination of Disability Lifeline benefits

Not Cool: Effective September 1, 2010, thousands of Washington State residents will lose their Disability Lifeline (formerly called GAU or General Assistance-Unemployable) benefits from the state.

Man with discouraged look on his faceKing County will be heavily impacted as more than 30% of Disability Lifeline recipients across the state live here. Benefits are being terminated due to a 24-month time limit approved by the legislature last session.

Disability Lifeline provides $339 in cash and medical benefits to people with very low incomes who are unable to work due to a temporary physical or mental health disability. For the first time, Disability Lifeline sets a time limit on receipt of benefits to 24 months in the past 60 months.

Termination can be appealed
If you or someone you know has received a termination notice, you have the right to appeal! But you must file your appeal by the end of the month you receive your notification in order to keep getting your benefits! For instance, if your termination notice is dated in August 2010 you have only until August 31 to file your appeal and keep benefits until the hearing decision. You can still file an appeal later — up to 90 days after your notice — but you will not continue to receive benefits while you wait.

The best way to file an appeal is to go to your local DSHS office. Turn in a written hearing request. Keep a copy! Have DSHS stamp your copy with the date received. Keep this as your proof of submitting your appeal.

If you cannot go in to a DSHS office in person by August 31, call DSHS. Be sure to speak to a person, not just a voicemail box. Write notes about your conversation including the name of the person you are speaking to and the date and time of your call. Keep these notes as your proof of your appeal. Ask for a “fair hearing” for your benefit termination. Ask the DSHS worker on the phone to make the written request to the hearings office for you.

You can also file your appeal through a combination of faxing and mailing the original on the same date. Use the fax number and address listed on the hearing form. Keep a copy of the appeal request, and keep the proof of the fax transmittal. It is safer if you can mail the original via certified mail with a return receipt.

In order to win your hearing, you may need to collect and bring medical and other evidence showing that you qualify as disabled under the SSI disability standards.

If you lose your hearing, any benefits that have been continued will stop and you will have to repay up to two months worth of benefits.

After you file your appeal, seek legal help. In King County you can call 2.1.1 or contact Solid Ground’s Family Assistance attorneys at evonnez@solid-ground.org or 206.694.6742.

In all other counties call CLEAR at 1.888.201.1014 to speak to an advocate.

Thanks to WashingtonLawHelp.org for this info! Additional information is available online: Washington LawHelp.

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