Posted by Amy Goldstein
I am continually impressed with how often people look out for a friend or neighbor in need and contact JF&CS on that person's behalf. In the case of one disabled woman, a simple phone call led me down a path that uncovered repeated failures by both government and social service agencies. It began when an elderly friend of the family called CJP SeniorDirect to say that Susan* had been trying to get food stamps for two years and that "no one was helping her." The case was referred to me for follow up. I learned that Susan was in her 40's and had mental health disabilities since childhood. She now lived on her own and had a case manager at a mental health agency near her home. But according to the caller, the case manager was not doing much to help.
I spoke to the client and to her new case manager, but neither could provide much information on what had happened in the past. I then contacted the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) to try to trace the history of her SNAP (food stamps) application. I found out that Susan had been approved for food stamps several months earlier but did not even know it. Hundreds of dollars had been accumulating in the account, but she did not even have an EBT card to access the benefits. The new case manager took Susan to the local DTA office to obtain a card. She is now able to use the much-needed benefits and receives an additional $150 allotment per month.
However, after digging deeper I found out that Susan had a food stamp case open and close in 2005 and again in 2008. Thousands of dollars worth of SNAP benefits had been put on Susan's EBT account but were never used. Clearly, this mentally disabled client did not understand how the SNAP program worked and needed assistance. I also learned that an additional EBT card had been sent to her former case manager in 2008, but it, too, was never used. I was shocked to discover that DTA systematically purged over $1,000 from Susan's account. Regulations allow untouched benefits to be expunged after a year, but DTA is supposed to follow up with the recipient if an EBT card goes unused. No follow up ever occurred in this case.
I contacted the local DTA office, the DTA legal office, and the federal agency that governs the SNAP program to complain. Although it is too late to correct the problems from 2008, I have been assured that Susan's case will now be closely monitored so that she does not fall through the cracks again. If Susan's elderly friend had not contacted JF&CS, this complete breakdown of the system would have continued to go unchecked.
As I prepare to move on from JF&CS to a new position helping low-income families, it's heartening to know that others are looking out for the more vulnerable members of our community.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Amy Goldstein is the public benefits specialist for Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which promotes social and economic justice for our clients by providing free legal services to those with low income.