After waiting five hours in the orange molded plastic chairs at the Department of Social Services’ Linden Center with her 3-month old daughter Destiny, Lorraine Campbell was frustrated almost to tears. The caseworker flatly refused to accept the 17-year-old Campbell’s application for welfare, saying she was just too young to receive benefits on her own.
According to the law, the caseworker was wrong–although staffers at this downtown Brooklyn office don’t seem to know any better. A few months earlier, the staff had accepted Campbell’s application, only to mistakenly deny her benefits on account of her age.
Like many other teen mothers, Campbell is eligible to receive benefits on her own, since she cannot live with a parent: Her mother is in the hospital, her father lives out of state and so she resides, for the time being, with an aunt.
Yet like many young people in her situation, she has been illegally rejected for welfare benefits–a disturbing pattern advocates say has become worse recently as the city attempts to slash its case rolls.
This time, Campbell came to the welfare center armed with an attorney’s letter quoting the regulations that prove her eligibility. It didn’t help. “The rule changed about two months ago,” explained the caseworker, who politely took time out of her lunch hour to provide this explanation for not accepting the documentation “She’s under 18, so she needs a guardian to be with her.”
When Campbell spoke with one of the center’s supervisors, the official confirmed that the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) is compelled to accept all welfare applications. This time, the staff agreed to take Campbell’s application, but the supervisor advised her it was a futile enterprise: “She has to bring [an adult] with her at her interview, since she is under eighteen.”
Caseworkers think the welfare reform act says young people can’t get assistance, explains Anne Kysar, a lawyer with The Door, the only nonprofit in the city to offer comprehensive legal services to teens on welfare. “But that’s just not what the law says,” she says. “They see these applications as something out of the normal, and rather than take the time to figure it out, they just turn the girls away.”
This issue pre-dates the state’s welfare overhaul last year, but inconsistent enforcement of poorly understood new laws and regulations has made a confusing system virtually incomprehensible. The new law still allows minors to collect benefits on their own–despite the fact that many HRA caseworkers apparently believe, or have been told, that welfare reform changed everything.
City welfare law experts and policy analysts say the problem is related to excessive HRA turnover. Since Wisconsin’s Jason Turner replaced Lilliam Barrios-Paoli as agency commissioner, many key HRA officials have left or been driven out. “It’s like a tidal wave has hit [the agency],” says one legal expert who helped draft the state law. “Even if the welfare law hadn’t changed, they’ve had a tremendous amount of turnover recently. Now, with Turner, everyone is scrambling to figure out what they need to do.”
State law does mandate that parents under the age of 18 must live at home to receive welfare funding. But there are key exceptions: Benefits can be dispensed to kids 16 or older if they’re trying to escape violent homes, or if they have no home at all–as in Campbell’s case.
In this respect, New York’s rules for young mothers have not changed significantly as a result of recent state and federal welfare reforms, even if some welfare administrators seem to think they have.
Their mistake may affect a considerable portion of the 14,000 New York City teenagers that have babies each year: A 1990 study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, found that two-thirds of all teen parents report abuse or violence in their homes.
“These kids aren’t leaving home because they’re spoiled, and they want to stay out late and go to parties,” says Jill Chaifetz, legal director of The Door. “It’s because home is dangerous or abusive, or there is no home.”
It’s not hard to find teens that the welfare centers have wrongly turned away. On her way out of Linden, Campbell bumped into a friend who couldn’t get the intake worker to let her fill out an application at all. And two other teen mothers on hand one afternoon at The Door both said they’d had their applications initially rejected for the same reason–they were told they were too young.
“About 90 percent of the kids that come in to us were turned away before they even applied,” Chaifetz says. And when a teen isn’t even allowed to file an application, there is no decision on the books to appeal–a critical problem, since judges almost always restore benefits on appeal.
Kysar says she writes five to ten letters a week that explicitly cite the law to welfare center supervisors. She has even had to get former HRA deputy commissioner Burt Blaustein to explain the law to one center director.
Lorraine Campbell doesn’t have a home to return to. But 16-year-old Jessica Gonzalez is afraid to go back to hers.
She says that just before her 14th birthday, she had a brutal fight with a family member, who came after her with a stick, punched her in the face and threw her out of the house. Since then she has been living independently, bouncing from house to house around the city.
Last winter, when Gonzalez first approached the welfare center near her Morrisania apartment, she was eight months pregnant, wearing ill-fitting clothes and running out of food. They turned her application down that day. The caseworker told her that, as a minor, she couldn’t get benefits until she moved back home. “The tears started,” she says. “I’m real emotional.”
Gonzalez was referred to Chaifetz, who dispatched her back to the welfare center on March 16 with a letter explaining that she was eligible. But a different caseworker refused to take the re-application, saying Gonzalez needed the official record from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to prove she’d been abused.
“That’s just not true,” Kysar says: All they really needed was a sworn statement from Gonzalez or a letter from a counselor.
If properly implemented, existing state welfare law could be used as a tool to help teens escape dangerous homes. In fact, a teen mother is entitled under the law to have her claims of abuse investigated–and have access to benefits in the interim.
Other states have moved far more aggressively than New York in this area. Massachusetts’ Teen Living Program uses the welfare intake process as another tool in the state’s abuse detection arsenal.
If a Massachusetts teen mother applying for welfare says she can’t go home for fear of abuse, a specially trained clinical social worker conducts home interviews with the girl, her family and her relatives. According to Lynne Pederzoli of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services’ Office of Family Based Services, the investigations all are conducted within 10 days. Then, if the findings warrant it, the girl can move into one of 22 group homes.
“I’ve never heard a complaint about the assessors,” says Judy Williams, coordinator of the teen program at Catholic Charities in Somerville, Massachusetts. “They contract with high quality, good people to do these assessments.”
The program costs $5 million, funded entirely by the state legislature. Kathleen Sylvester of Washington, D.C.’s Social Action Policy Network, who developed the model for Massachusetts’ teen group housing program, says she’s organizing a conference this month in response to requests from other states. What was New York State’s reaction? Says Sylvester: “We invited them, but they weren’t interested.”
Last December, former HRA commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli pledged to establish a similar program in New York City. A few weeks later, she was removed from the job, and advocates and City Council analysts say her plan has apparently died.
An HRA spokesman defended his agency’s handling of abuse cases, saying that all allegations are referred to ACS as required by law. Further questions on the policy were not answered.
The problem may be that the administration is far more eager to reduce its welfare rolls than to create a system to protect vulnerable independent teens. “There is tremendous pressure to get people off the rolls–that’s probably the guiding principle,” says Carrie Chapman, legislative aide to City Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge, who chairs the Women’s Issues Committee on the council.
Just what the tight-lipped HRA leadership plans to do next is a mystery. Analysts say Turner could go in one of two directions. He could re-examine Barrios-Paoli’s investigative strategy–and make it easier for teenagers to get independent benefits. He also has the legal latitude to raise the standard of proof in abuse cases, limiting the number of teenagers receiving benefits on their own. But those close to the agency think it’s unlikely Turner will get too tough on the teenagers, given the potentially nightmarish consequences and bad press.
With Turner focused on welfare-to-work, the provision seems to be a low priority at HRA. The most likely scenario, according to those close to the situation, is that the confusion at the welfare centers will continue indefinitely, meaning that young mothers like Lorraine Campbell and Jessica Gonzalez will continue to be denied the benefits that they’re legally entitled to.