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The bizarrely named state “Family Violence Option” is supposed to make the bureaucratic process of applying for welfare a little easier and safer for battered women. It requires welfare caseworkers to ask clients and applicants if they are domestic violence victims. If the answer is yes, workers are required to refer the woman to a liaison who will hook her up with special help and services and possibly grant her a four-month reprieve from work requirements.

Instead, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund found through interviews with 110 Bronx welfare clients that between half and two-thirds are never asked about domestic abuse. Worse, of the nine abused clients they surveyed who did tell their caseworkers that they were in danger, not one was referred to the special liaison–even though four had police reports or orders of protection to back up their claims.

“It certainly reflects our experience,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the battered women’s legal service center at Sanctuary for Families. “Most of our clients never see a screening form.” Leidholdt said that she and other battered women’s advocates had pushed hard to get the state to adopt these protections in the welfare law.

Other surveys of domestic violence among welfare clients suggest that New York City would probably have a caseload of about 25,000 to 57,600 domestic abuse clients, if the services were more accessible. Instead, only 3,023 clients were referred to the liaisons between summer of 1998 and 1999. And only about 35 percent of those people were granted work exemptions, in part because the liaisons seem to be using very strict criteria.

“It means women who are extremely traumatized and in no position to be forced into workforce or menial work can’t get the services and help they need,” said Leidholdt.

Whether these problems are accidental or deliberate, they certainly sit well with the beliefs of the welfare department’s chief, Jason Turner. “Work is not something that you need to do after you’ve received treatment,” is how he put it at a City Council hearing last spring, explaining why battered welfare recipients shouldn’t be exempted from work programs. “It’s something that is part of treatment. It makes you better.”

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