Women United
Justice, Community and Family


Social Services defies order to properly administer assistance

By Rickie Solinger
July 19, 1998

Boulder County Department of Social Services fails to explain sanctions

As the Daily Camera reported on July 7, the Boulder County welfare rolls have declined by about 25 percent since "welfare reform" took effect one year ago. This is good news, though as many experts have claimed, probably due more to the excellent economic climate we`re experiencing than to anything else. The Daily Camera article quotes personnel from the Boulder County Department of Social Services to the effect that child care services and transportation are still problem areas, as many recipients - mostly mothers of young children - are going to work.

Women United for Justice, Community and Family, a Boulder County welfare rights group, has identified an additional problem area: the number of local recipients who are currently "in sanctions" and the way that the Boulder County Department of Social Services has been handling these cases. To be "in sanctions" means that a recipient has failed to meet one or more requirements of her Individual Responsibility Contract. Such a recipient has her cash assistance grant reduced because she fails to cooperate in some way with work requirements, child support requirements or immunization requirements. In recent months, approximately one out of every seven TANF recipients has been in sanctions of some sort. In April, 1998, there were about 79 recipients in sanctions out of a total case load of about 600.

Women United is concerned about these 79 recipients for two reasons. First, among the members of our group are recipients who have been accused of wrong-doing by the Boulder County Department of Social Services, but with the assistance, support, and representation of other Women United members, the accused members have cleared themselves of charges or have had their burdens lightened. Women United is concerned that among the 79 recipients in trouble with the Department of Social Services are some who, with outside support and assistance, would be cleared of sanction charges. We believe that in the interests of "self-sufficiency" and dignity, Boulder County`s sanctioned recipients should routinely have such representation available to them. In other cities, such as San Francisco, programs that fund former recipients to act as ombudspersons have been mounted successfully.

We know that many recipients are living enormously stressful lives, and that "welfare reform," with its heavy work demands, has intensified the stress for more than a few poor, single mothers with young children. Many recipients, who do not have advocates to help them understand and respond to the new demands, are extremely confused about what, exactly, is being demanded of them. A Philadelphia study of welfare reform implementation recently found that "Among the TANF clients interviewed (for the study) few could say exactly what the sanctions are or how they work."

Women United is concerned about the 79 recipients sanctioned by the Boulder County Department of Social Services for a second reason. Recently, a sanctioned client claimed that the sanction notice she received did not describe clearly and in terms she could understand, the actions that were being taken against her and the reasons for the actions. She claimed that the information on the notification form she got was confusing and did not cite the rules requiring the imposition of the sanction and omitted other information required by law.

This client challenged the action of the Boulder County Department of Social Services to the state`s Division of Administrative Hearings within the Department of Human Services. The administrative law judge who reviewed the case agreed with her claim. The county department of social services appealed the judge`s finding, but the Colorado Department of Human Services, in a "Final Agency Decision" affirmed the ruling and indicated in strong language that the Boulder County Department of Social Services had not provided comprehensible information or comprehensive information on the form, as required by law. The State Department of Human Services pointed out that while the Boulder County Department of Human Services has been using standard forms provided by the state, "This does not excuse the county department from complying with or adhering to the unambiguous language of these rules."

This case raises some important questions. Why did the Boulder County Department of Social Services appeal the ruling of the administrative law judge? Why wasn`t the department eager to comply with the rules governing notification, rules designed to make sure that recipients get good information and understand their situations?

Is the department aware that their past failure and continuing apparent reluctance to give recipients good information in writing deepens the feeling of disempowerment that many recipients feel?

Is the department aware that this case - and the matter of following the codified regulations regarding sanction notices - is not "merely a technicality"? It is important to remember that the department expects all recipients to observe every technicality required of them. Moreover, the history of achieving the rights of all marginalized and relatively powerless people in the United States has been a history of challenging the technicalities of institutional practices and law. This is a case that matters.

Women United urges TANF recipients who may have received improper sanction notification forms from the Boulder County Department of Social Services to contact Boulder County Legal Services, 449-7575, for information and representation. Women United is interested in helping to reduce the number of recipients who are punished by sanctions. We are also interested in helping those enmeshed in the sanctioning process get the information they need, the information they are promised by law. Departments of Social Services must understand that in this case the regulations have been written - and must be enforced - to protect and ensure the dignity and the rights of poor people, mostly poor single mothers and their children.

Rickie Solinger is a member of Boulder County's United Women for Justice, Community and Family

SOURCE: Boulder Daily Camera, Guest Opinion, Sunday 7-19-98

Spanish translation by Leah Furumo

Women United
Boulder, Colorado