Saying that the Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) has created a Kafkaesque process of computer glitches and lost paperwork resulting in unlawful delays in processing food assistance requests for individuals and families in need, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) have filed a class action lawsuit against the state.
Melba Depena Affigne, director of the DHS, is named in the suit that the ACLU says is due to “ongoing, critical and widespread failure to provide food stamp benefits to needy families due in large part to its transition to a new, and very troubled, computer system.”
The lawsuit argues that the “systematically inadequate and faulty statewide implementation of a new integrated computer system” designed to determine food stamp eligibility “continues to cause thousands of households to suffer imminent risk of ongoing hunger as a result of being denied desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families.”
“There is a reason why strict federal deadlines have been imposed for the processing of food stamp applications,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger, “food assistance for our most vulnerable citizens only has meaning if they have timely access to it. It is no answer to those eligible for food assistance today that the State needs more time and fully intends to work things out over time.”
Plaintiff Mea Martinez, a mother of three children from Woonsocket, submitted her application over three months ago. Hearing nothing back after dropping off her paperwork in late August, she went back to the DHS office one day in early October. She waited in line for four hours, but was unable to see anyone about her issue. Earlier this week, Martinez finally heard back from the DHS, after months of waiting, and was told she would have to start the process all over again if she did not appear that day with her paperwork. She did so, but was told her claim could not be processed due to a computer glitch.
For the last three months Martinez has been going to food pantries to get the food she needs for her family of five.
“As Harry Hopkins, a member of FDR’s New Deal administration, poignantly remarked to a similar response during the Great Depression, ‘people don’t eat in the long run, they eat every day,’” said Labinger, “The errors, miscues and glitches that continue to prevent eligible recipients from access to food assistance are unacceptable, as is the state’s inadequate efforts to fix things. Meeting the federal deadlines for processing applications is an obligation, not a suggestion, and the State’s failure to recognize that fact is the reason for this lawsuit.”
The class-action suit notes that, as of less than month ago, the state had failed to timely process half of the food stamp applications of the 3,304 neediest households that were entitled to expedited processing of their application within seven days.
Attorney Gretchen Bath, from Rhode Island Legal Services (RILS) has documented some of the problems her office has encountered in representing clients who have been victims of the new computer system. “Soon after UHIP (the troubled computer system being rolled out by DHS) went live, RILS advocates saw a huge increase in calls from clients who had failed to receive their benefits when due or whose applications just hadn’t been processed.”
Federal law requires food assistance benefits to be granted or denied in thirty days (seven days under expedited circumstances) and the clock starts on the day the application is submitted. Bath learned that many of the applications were in a sort of computer limbo, unable to be accessed or processed, causing terrible delays.
“Before contacting RILS,” said Bath, “most of these clients had tried unsuccessfully to get their problem resolved, by standing in long lines at the DHS office, going back to DHS multiple times just to speak with someone, or trying to reach someone at the DHS contact line. DHS repeatedly describes itself as ‘laser focused’ on customer service. When you have seen the lines at the DHS offices and talked to clients about their frustrating experiences, that rings pretty hollow.”
Bath said dealing with the cases being brought by clients to her office has “been devastating to our caseload.” She suggested that the institutional knowledge lost when Governor Gina Raimondo laid off 75 caseworkers has made the problem worse. In the past, her office had contacts at DHS who could help work out these kind of problems. But no longer.
The delay in processing applications that are lost in UHIP computer limbo means that DHS’s own number of 50 percent of applications being processed could be much closer to zero, said Labinger.
The suit seeks the issuance of a court order requiring applications to be timely processed. Notwithstanding the strict and obligatory federal timeline standards designed to protect needy families, the state does not expect to have the system completely fixed until June 2017.
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said “The state has a responsibility to resolve the mess it created, and to do so expeditiously, whatever it takes. We are hopeful that the court will ensure that happens. Rhode Island’s neediest residents deserve nothing less as the holiday season approaches.”