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! 


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Evonne Zook retires: ‘Change of any sort requires courage’

Evonne Zook, front and center, with the 2014 Family Assistance team.

Evonne Zook, front and center, with the 2014 Family Assistance team

After 15 years working as an attorney for Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program where she helped people living on low incomes access public benefits, Evonne Zook is moving on to her next adventure. While she is leaving our agency and even Washington state to settle in Lake Havasu, Arizona with family, Evonne is hardly retiring. With so many new and changing laws, especially regarding immigration, she hopes to volunteer or do pro bono work in the field to continue to help people in need.

The trajectory of Evonne’s journey to Solid Ground was unconventional, but fueled by a commitment to serve the public and fight for justice. As a single mother, she worked in the banking industry while raising her children until 1990. However, the corporate environment contradicted her natural instincts, and she struggled against the system before deciding to return to school to finish her undergraduate studies.

At 54 years old, Evonne moved to Washington from Oregon to enter law school. In 1998, she volunteered for the first time at what was then the Fremont Public Association, and says she “fell in love with the Family Assistance program, helping people who were really in need rather than fighting corporate businesses.” After taking the bar exam, there was a job opening at Solid Ground; she applied for it immediately after passing the test and has been with the agency ever since.

Family Assistance is one of the only programs in King County practicing civil law to represent people on public benefits issues. State funding is rare for non-criminal court cases when public defenders are not automatically provided, so Solid Ground’s attorneys fill that gap. Utilizing a cooperative approach, they work closely with Solid Ground’s JourneyHome and other housing programs to get people the support they need. Evonne emphasizes that collaborating “with people who have the same goals is a wonderful thing.”

She reflects that her most memorable moments have been helping people get benefits they didn’t even know they were entitled to, after being entrenched for years by the biases of the state’s bureaucratic system:

Evonne-circleWhat we do is represent clients for no charge who are having problems with public benefits – who have been denied or had their benefits reduced for cash, food, Medicaid and childcare. And we will represent the client in administrative hearings if we believe the client has made a mistake or is being discriminated against in any way. So it’s been very busy with changes in the law.

There are a lot of attorneys in the state trying to work on changing the laws, and I do believe that is valuable work. But given my age, I always thought it was more beneficial to help the clients slipping through the cracks right now than it was to try and change the laws that I might never see. That progress is kind of like evolution: Changes happen so slowly that sometimes people experiencing the problems now don’t have any hope that anything is ever going to change.

I think that the real benefit we’ve been able to offer to clients in this program is access to the law, access to the courts, and to justice. Because a lot of people give up; they think the courts are only for those that can afford the best and most expensive lawyers; they think the law is not on their side or that things are hopeless.

So we’re talking about the law that enables them to support their families and move out of poverty, and we’ve been able to offer clients enough encouragement and explanation of what the law says so they feel they are in tune with the law. We’re not able to change the law on this level, but lots of times, if we let a client know what their rights are, they feel so much better.”

Evonne feels the poor have to have an advocate against the gatekeepers to social services who are bound by their own prejudices. Clients also have the right to be heard; they have constitutional rights to due process, and every decision the state makes to harm them or take away a benefit, they have the right to protest. “In the meantime, we can offer them alternatives and some support.”

Many clients have mental health issues, and courts tend to be sympathetic, tuned-in to individuals who are fighting the state bureaucracy for services and basic rights that the law allows. Even so, about 80% of cases are settled outside of court, because Family Assistance’s style is “to help the client first and foremost, not to ‘win.’ We can’t take every case, but we can explain the law, who can help them, what they can do and what alternatives are available to them.”

Evonne-Flowers-WebA plaque in Evonne’s office reads, “Change of any sort requires courage,” an apt metaphor for the challenges of retirement. Until about four years ago, she was Lead Benefits Attorney. At the time, she “decided to step down and maybe partially retire. Stephanie Earhart has taken over the lead since that point, and it has worked out great.” But she found “part-time retirement didn’t work for me – being in the office three days a week and thinking about the cases the other two days – so I returned to full-time. But I think it was important at that time to pass on the leadership role of the program to Stephanie.” And now, she says, “I’m 72 years old; it’s time to change and I’m ready.”

Looking at the stacked boxes of files filled with decades’ worth of clients in Evonne’s office, it is remarkable to see a physical representation of the deep impact she has had on the countless people she has served. “I have loved working with the people here at Solid Ground; their values are so in tune with making the world a better place. It’s been just a wonderful experience; I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

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

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.

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