WELFARE PROGRAM WHACKED

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It’s back to the drawing board for the city’s WeCare program, developed by the Human Resources Administration (HRA) in 2005 to consolidate social services and job creation provided to the disabled. On April 19, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain ruled that the city “segregated” persons with disabilities by forcing them to travel to one of three dedicated hub offices, rather than receive services at any of the city’s 29 neighborhood offices, scattered around the five boroughs. Almost 30,000 people have already been transferred into the program. Disability advocates sued last August, claiming the city violated the Americans with Disability Act as well as other civil rights statutes, according to Legal Aid Society staff attorney Kathleen Kelleher. Judge Swain agreed in her decision, writing that traveling to the hubs—in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn—“constitutes a hardship” and that WeCare “clearly violates the mandate that persons with disabilities be given the opportunity to participate in mainstream services.” Ironically, the ‘Wellness, Comprehensive Assessment, Rehabilitation and Employment’ program was designed “to focus on customized services for the people with specialized needs,” said Barbara Brancaccio, HRA’s director of communications. The ruling will allow clients the option of sticking with their local offices and requires legal representatives for both sides to create a plan for how to facilitate that. “The decision highlights one of several concerns that the General Welfare Committee has about the WeCare program,” said City Councilmember Bill de Blasio, who chairs the General Welfare Committee. “Tens of thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors living with disabilities depend on HRA for assistance. That’s why the committee has been asking questions.” The city has not yet decided if it will seek an appeal. (J. Jonas) [05/01/06]