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Net Loss

State social services falter, just when state residents need them most

Frank Klein
Marylanders seeking help flood the Baltimore County office of the State Department of Social Services on a recent morning.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 11/4/2009

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The Department of Human Resources' Elyn Garrett Jones says it's doing what it can to "ensure we are able to meet the increased need and also to make applying for this assistance more convenient for those who need it most."

Among the measures it's taking to improve access to public benefits, she says: simplification of the eligibility requirements for programs; an effort to work with community-based organizations to train their staffs to assist individuals applying for benefits; the addition of online programs to help people apply for benefits online.

She says the department has been given approval to hire 64 income-maintenance specialists and supervisors "to help address the application backlog."

"The department will continue to do all it can to provide quality services to those in need," she says.

In the meantime, there's a lawsuit wending its way through the courts that, if successful, could actually force the state to remedy the ongoing problems with social services benefits processing. Miracyle Thompson v. Brenda Donald was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore in April, and it accuses the state of "horrific delays in processing the critical benefits that Maryland's neediest families rely upon for their very survival."

The case outlines the predicament faced by Owings Mills resident Miracyle Thompson and her family earlier this year when they applied for assistance in Baltimore County. On Feb. 26, Thompson and her husband applied for food stamps for their family of four--20-year-old Thompson was pregnant and unemployed, her husband had a job at an AT&T retail store, and her young sons, ages 1 and 2, both have sickle cell disease, which meant that they had special nutritional needs. On March 3, Thompson says she faxed additional documents requested by the Department of Social Services to her case worker.

"I then called my caseworker every day to ask for a status update on my family's Medicaid and food-stamp cases," she writes in her declaration accompanying the suit. "I finally received a returned call on March 24, 2009."

The caseworker asked for additional documentation, which Thompson says she provided, but on April 5, she received a letter from the Department of Social Services telling her that her case had been delayed due to "an agency delay . . . beyond our control." As of April 27, she still had no food stamps, no Medicaid, and no calls back from her caseworker. Thompson's statement says she and her husband were both skipping meals to make sure the children had enough to eat--even though Thompson was pregnant. She also was unable to fill prescriptions for iron drops for her sons and was only able to get her sons immunized because her pediatrician was willing to administer the vaccines for free.

The Public Justice Center, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the organizations representing Thompson, sought an injunction to have the suit declared class action, but that injunction was denied in October. The next hearings on the case are in December.

Should the case succeed, the court system could issue an injunction to force the state to fix the system. The court case estimates that at the rate the state is failing now, "more than 55,000 Maryland residents and their families will experience unlawful delays in the processing of their applications for critical subsistence benefits," and further notes that "lack of funds or staff is not legally excusable."

Until then, Stephanie and others like her will continue to sit in waiting rooms around Maryland, while the state tries to shore up its system. By 9:15 a.m., the digital display at Drumcastle Center finally blinks ahead another notch--it's finally serving customer number 67.

"If they're overwhelmed, they should just hire more staff," her mother says, knowing that it's never that easy.

Stephanie looks around and sighs.

"If you weren't depressed before you came here, you will be when you leave," she says. "I never thought that I would be here right now. I guess nobody does."

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In Need of Assistance (4/7/2010)
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