Breaking down barriers to child care assistance

by Maria Griego & Sovereign Hager

One often insurmountable barrier to financial security for many New Mexican families is the high cost of child care, this is especially true for low-wage workers. The astronomical costs prevent thousands of families with children from accessing meaningful work and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, while the number of New Mexicans who qualify for state-provided child care assistance has increased, enrollment in the program has actually declined.

We dug into the problem and found that the Children, Youth and Families Department required families to go through a torturous child care assistance enrollment process. Families automatically eligible for child care assistance because they engage in work and educational activities through our state cash assistance program (TANF) were forced to visit multiple offices to turn in unnecessary paperwork. Many families lack reliable transportation, and the frequent office visits interfered with work and school schedules, making it impossible for them to complete the process.

We also found that CYFD sent confusing and threatening letters to participating families in an attempt to illegally recoup erroneous prior overpayments of child care benefits. The letters demanded clients return money within 15 days or have their balance sent to collections. Unpaid overpayments can bar families from the child care assistance program. Families eligible for assistance often live from paycheck to paycheck and unexpected bills can cause financial distress and bankruptcy.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty reached out to CYFD and informed them that the requests for back payment were illegal. We also offered to help streamline their administrative processes to improve access to the child care assistance program, especially for the lowest income families that are automatically eligible.

CYFD agreed to stop sending the letters and accepted our proposal to drastically simplify the application process. The state also issued regulations that established a clear time frame for processing applications so families do not have to wait indefinitely for benefits if they are eligible. Since these changes were implemented, nearly $24,000 has been returned to families who were illegally changed for prior over payments and there has been a 39 percent increase in enrollment of the families already enrolled in TANF.

While this is great progress there are still far fewer people enrolled in the program than who are eligible. There’s much more work to be done. Families are still required to turn in in unnecessary paperwork and have difficulty in the application process because notices that families receive are not translated into Spanish.  Families are not informed about their right to appeal a denial of benefits.

Find out if you’re eligible for child care assistance and learn how to apply here. You can find information in Spanish here. Please spread the word!

Photo credit: freeABQimages.com

 

Federal Court Hearing on HSD Compliance with Orders to Remove Barriers to Food and Medical Assistance on Wednesday, November 29

LAS CRUCES, NM— On Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, Judge Kenneth Gonzales will hear an update on the New Mexico Human Services Department’s compliance with multiple court orders to timely and accurately provide food and medical assistance to eligible families.

Last year, Judge Gonzales held the HSD secretary in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. The Special Master recommended that HSD cease any program changes not required by federal law and that the department make changes in its management.

Despite the court orders and Special Master’s recommendations, HSD continues to improperly deny eligible New Mexicans food and medical assistance–in November of 2017, HSD had a backlog of over 17,000 unprocessed SNAP and Medicaid cases. The department has also failed to make any management changes and is proposing large-scale changes to the Medicaid program, including charging premiums and Medicaid co-pays, that are not required by federal law.

WHAT:
U.S District Court status conference on HSD compliance with court orders in Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. Brent Earnest, No. 88-385 KG/CG

WHEN:
Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE:
United States Courthouse
4th Floor, North Tower, Mimbres Courtroom
100 N. Church Street
Las Cruces, New Mexico 88001

WHO:
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorneys
HSD Secretary and Attorneys

URGENT! Tell Steve Pearce to Protect Federal Food Assistance!

This Thursday Congress is expected to vote on the FY 2018 House Budget Resolution, which contains harsh cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps and other poverty reduction programs. SNAP has been instrumental in helping struggling families put food on the table. But the plan envisions a total SNAP cut of $150 billion (more than 20 percent) over ten years.

If implemented, the resolution would pull the rug out beneath 464,102 New Mexicans who participate in the program, including 199,286 children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, while the wealthiest Americans and profitable corporations would get huge tax cuts.

As New Mexico’s Most Important Anti-Hunger Program, SNAP:

  • Improves the Health of Young Children – Nearly half (46%) of New Mexican children under age four rely on SNAP benefits to eat.  SNAP is proven to increase health and learning outcomes in young children by supporting brain development through adequate nutrition.
  • Supports Working Families – SNAP supports working New Mexicans.  Half of New Mexico SNAP participants are in working families. SNAP is also a critical support as New Mexico continues to have an unemployment rate that is significantly higher than the national average.
  • Boosts New Mexico’s Economy – SNAP benefits pumped $693 million dollars in the New Mexico economy. Every dollar of federal SNAP benefits spent in New Mexico generates $1.70 in economic activity.

Please call Representative Steve Pearce TODAY and urge him to oppose the house budget reconciliation.

Representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Lujan are working hard to protect funding for SNAP. However, we need to make sure Representative Steve Pearce takes action to protect this critical program.

Call Representative Steve Pearce at his Washington D.C. office: (202) 225-2365.

Court Rejects Challenge to Earned Sick Leave Law

Ruling Ensures Healthy Workforce Ordinance Will Appear on October 3 Municipal Ballot

 

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Today, in a victory for Albuquerque’s working families, Honorable Judge Shannon Bacon threw out a challenge by business lobbyists to the Albuquerque Healthy Workforce Ordinance. Today’s ruling ensures that voters will have an opportunity to vote on earned sick days this fall at the October 3, 2017 municipal election.

“Low wage and immigrant workers play a critical role in Albuquerque’s economy, yet they are disproportionately impacted by attacks on minimum wage and efforts to undermine the proposed paid sick leave ordinance,” said Marco Nunez, Worker Justice Coordinator, EL CENTRO de Igualdad y Derechos.  “This victory sends a clear message to corporate interests that prioritize profit over the well-being of our families that our communities will not stand by idly as they attack and chip away at workers’ rights.”

Judge Bacon also upheld voters’ right to vote on citizen-initiated ballot initiatives, rejecting the business interests’ attempt to strike the voters’ democratic rights from the Albuquerque City Charter.

“Albuquerque residents’ right to directly participate in the lawmaking process is a cornerstone of our local democracy,” said Tim Davis, an attorney with the New Mexico Center in Law and Poverty, who argued the case for the community organizations. “Today’s ruling protects this right from attacks by well-connected business interests.”

The ruling arose out of a lawsuit filed against the city by business lobbyists who wanted to remove the earned sick ordinance from the October 2017 ballot. They also sought to cut the minimum wage, which was overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2012, from $8.80 to $7.50. Community organizations and voters who support both laws intervened in the case to defend them.

The judge also tossed out the challenge to the Albuquerque minimum wage in an oral ruling from the bench yesterday, ruling that the results of the 2012 general election are final and cannot be challenged now. She issued a written opinion today reaffirming her oral ruling. Together with her ruling on the Healthy Workforce Ordinance, today’s rulings dismiss all claims in the lawsuit on both ordinances.

The earned sick leave ballot initiative, if passed, would give workers the right to earn sick leave to recover from illness or care for ill family members. Local community organizations have been working to educate the public on the earned sick leave initiative since last summer, when over 24,000 voters in Albuquerque signed the petition in support of it.

The Healthy Workforce ABQ Ordinance can be read online here: https://healthyworkforceabq.org/full-language-of-ordinance/

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ACTION ALERT: Call Governor Now to Prevent Budget Cuts

Your action is needed urgently –   the House and Senate just sent a tax package today to Governor Martinez to help avert more deep budget cuts that would further slash funding for our schools, healthcare and public safety agencies. New Mexico is facing school closures and further reduction to classrooms and teachers, the elimination of certain Medicaid services for low-income families and people with disabilities, and a worsening public safety crisis from under-resourcing our courts and other key agencies.

House Bill 202 makes responsible and overdue changes to the tax code, including to level the playing field for small businesses by taxing out of state internet sellers, close up tax loopholes for certain industries, and update the gas tax so the funds can be invested into our roads.

Please call the Governor’s office at 505-476-2200. Ask her to sign HB202, and not to veto any part of it. Let her know that New Mexicans will not accept more budget cuts and that you support this tax package as a fair solution that does not hurt our families.  It will only take a minute to leave a message.

Judge Holds NM Human Services Chief in Contempt

human-services-departmentOriginally published in the Albuquerque Journal September 28, 2016
https://www.abqjournal.com/854783/judge-finds-contempt-in-hsd-legal-case.html

SANTA FE – A federal judge held New Mexico’s top human services official in contempt Tuesday for failing to comply with court orders aimed at improving the administration of food aid and Medicaid health care benefits.

The contempt order against Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales upheld findings that the cabinet secretary did not diligently attempt to comply with court orders concerning the handling of Medicaid benefit renewals, eligibility for immigrants, training for agency employees and other administrative requirements.

The judge, in his Tuesday order, also said objections filed by the agency were without merit and that the overall direction of the case was troubling.

“It remains clear that HSD and its officials have failed to exercise the leadership, control and managerial oversight to effectively come into compliance with the court orders,” Gonzales wrote.

However, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, which runs the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, took issue with at least part of the judge’s order.

“We strongly disagree with the judge’s characterization of the department, which doesn’t take into account all of our efforts to resolve long-standing issues – some of which are three decades old and occurred under several administrations,” HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison said. “However, we are pleased that the court has agreed with us to bring in an outside monitor to help resolve those issues.”

“Regardless, we are going to continue providing services to New Mexicans who need it the most,” he added.

The contempt finding accompanies the judge’s earlier approval of plans for a court-appointed special master to help ensure federally funded benefits are administered properly amid internal investigations by state and federal agencies into allegations that food aid applications were falsified.

The civil contempt order carries no additional sanctions or penalties.

Sovereign Hager, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and advocate for aid beneficiaries in the litigation, said the order sends a strong message nonetheless.

“I think this is a message that if things don’t work out with a special master and the state doesn’t come into compliance, the court will look to harsher remedies,” she said.

New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and there were more than 536,000 New Mexicans receiving food assistance benefits under SNAP, which was formerly known as food stamps, as of July, according to HSD. That figure was up by more than 7 percent – or nearly 36,000 people – from a year earlier.

The judge’s contempt order is the latest twist in a 1988 lawsuit. Earlier this year, a series of hearings were conducted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza, who had been tasked with monitoring compliance with a consent decree in the lawsuit and previous court orders.

Those hearings showed potential problems with the SNAP program, including testimony that state intake workers had been ordered to falsify income for some applicants, effectively denying them emergency benefits.

The testimony prompted criticism of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration by top legislative Democrats and party officials, including a call from Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the chairman of the interim Health and Human Services Committee, for Earnest to resign.

Earnest took over as HSD secretary – after Martinez picked him for the job – in December 2014 after the agency’s former secretary stepped down.

Read the Order from Judge Gonzales here.

Editorial: Shortchanging the Poor

Republished from the Las Vegas Optic. See the original column here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 6:30 pm (Updated: July 19, 6:42 pm)

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza has concluded that the New Mexico Human Services Department should have someone looking over its shoulder to help ensure that it complies with court orders and federal law in the administration of federally funded benefits.

According to The Associated Press, Garza is also recommending a contempt finding against the agency, which oversees the distribution of federal food aid and Medicaid health care benefits to the poor.

To be sure, those are merely proposals at this point; the department has 14 days to file its objections, and the department is already saying that it doesn’t agree with everything in the judge’s decision.

Still, it’s unfortunate — though not surprising — that such extreme measures are necessary to get the department to follow the law and to finally comply with court orders that have gone unfulfilled.

The harsh measures being recommended are not surprising because of the striking testimony presented during the court proceedings in the case.

“Caseworkers’ sworn testimony that they were instructed by managers to fraudulently alter applicant information has essentially not been refuted,” Garza said. According to The Associated Press, Garza also noted that managers overseeing supplemental nutrition benefits invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the proceedings.

The Human Services Department’s office of inspector general and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating that part of the case.

We don’t doubt that the state Human Services Department has a difficult job with tight deadlines and large caseloads.

But it’s also important to remember that the agency exists to serve as a safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents.

The aid this agency provides helps our state’s poor put food on the table for their families and get medical care for them. Playing games with that aid is unconscionable and wrong.

If it takes a special master looking over the agency’s shoulder to force it to do the right thing, then so be it.

According to The Associated Press, the special master would have expertise in determining eligibility for Medicaid and food aid. That individual would also be knowledgeable with the organizational and computer systems used to manage the state’s caseload.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which brought forth the federal lawsuit on behalf of aid beneficiaries, was pleased with Garza’s decision, which was issued Monday.

“The things we have been asking for are very simple,” attorney Sovereign Hager told AP. “Train your workers on what the law requires, make sure the IT system does what it’s supposed to, make sure notices are intelligible and make sense.”

That seems reasonable to us.

NM Human Services Department Found in Contempt, Federal Magistrate Recommends Special Master

SNAP Logo

Las Cruces, NM – On Friday, July 15, 2016, Federal Magistrate Carmen Garza entered proposed findings that the NM Human Services Department (HSD) be held in contempt for failure to comply with multiple Court Orders and federal law concerning administration of food and medical assistance to eligible families. Judge Garza found that “it is apparent that HSD and its officials have not exhibited the leadership, oversight, or coordination necessary to implement the Court Orders.” Judge recommended the appointment of a Special Master with expertise in food and medical assistance be appointed to facilitate HSD’s compliance with federal law and Court Orders.

The Order comes after three days of evidentiary hearings about HSD’s failure to provide food and medical assistance to families as required by federal law. Judge Garza noted numerous violations of federal law and Court Orders by HSD, finding that worker trainings and notices to families applying for food and medical assistance are “replete with repeated mistakes” and that HSD had not brought state regulations and policies into compliance with federal law. Nor could HSD tell the Court when compliance would be achieved. The Court further noted that testimony by HSD employees that HSD staff have been altering application in order to deny eligible applicants emergency food benefits and improve HSD’s timeliness statistics “was essentially not refuted.”
In entering a finding that the Secretary Brent Earnest should be held in Contempt, Judge Garza noted the Department’s recent willingness to seek expert assistance, stating “While the Court appreciates this acknowledgement, the Court is troubled it took over thirty hours of status conferences, over five hundred pages of joint status reports submitted to the Court, three days of evidentiary hearings on its Order to Show Cause, and testimony by HSD employees alleging fraud on the part of HSD, to which high level officials responded by pleading the fifth, for Defendant to discuss making these types of changes. For the question before the Court, Defendant’s realization has come entirely too late.”

As a remedy for contempt, Judge Garza recommends that the Court appoint and supervise a Special Master to act as a full time advisor and consultant to HSD. The Special Master will have expertise in food and medical assistance programs and will report to the Court on the extent of the Department’s compliance.

Judge Garza stated “Defendant’s inability to fully bring his application processing practices into compliance with the Court Orders has profound effects on the citizens of New Mexico. Indeed, when an eligible SNAP or Medicaid applicant is denied or delayed in receiving benefits, that individual loses benefits he or she may rely on to eat, feed his or her children, or to receive essential medical coverage . . . It is essential for this Court to acknowledge the need for these services to be effectively, efficiently and properly rendered to those who are eligible in this state.”

Attorneys at the Center and Law and Poverty, along with co-counsel Daniel Yohalem and Jane Yohalem, represent the class of plaintiff applicants for food and medical assistance in the case. Gail Evans, Legal Director at the NM Center on Law and Poverty stated, “We are pleased that the Court will appoint and supervise an expert to oversee HSD’s compliance with federal law in providing food and medical assistance. The Department needs expert assistance with important changes that will help the state provide benefits accurately and efficiently. This includes IT changes, the creation of a manual and effective training for state workers and comprehensible notices to families participating in the programs. We look forward to working with the special master to bring the Department into compliance with the law.”

For more information contact Gail Evans at (505) 255-2840/(505) 463-5299 or Sovereign Hager (505) 417-2084.

Read the full press release here.

Read Justice Garza’s recommendation here: Part 1 Part 2