What do you guys think about states going after children whose parents were mistakenly overpaid welfare benefits when those parents cannot be made to pay it back? Is this fair?
SAN FRANCISCO — In 2008, when Jamie Hartley was 16 years old, her family was overpaid a total of $766 in welfare benefits.
But now Riverside County is demanding that Hartley repay the debt and it intends to "intercept" her next state income tax refund to get the money.
California welfare regulations for years have allowed, and even required, counties to go after minors for the debts of their parents, state officials told the Associated Press.
Attorneys for a Hartley and a Fresno man who filed suit Nov. 23 to try to stop the practice say they believe thousands of young people throughout the state are being unfairly required to repay millions of dollars in welfare money that mistakenly or fraudulently was obtained by caregivers or guardians.
Officials at the California Department of Social Services, which administers the welfare program called CalWORKS, said they do not track the number of children required to make such payments. The state's 58 counties recouped $61.5 million for the fiscal year ending June 30. The counties reported $133 million in overpayments for the same time period.
"The department is sensitive to this overpayment collection issue. However, state law does not allow for latitude when it comes to the recoupment of overpayments of public assistance benefits," said spokesman Michael Weston. "Counties first seek recovery from the adults associated with the case. When those efforts are fully exhausted, the county is required to seek recoupment of overpayments from any individual that was an aided member of a family..."
In Hartley's case, the debt arose because her family continued to receive its full benefits for three months during the summer her brother turned 18 and graduated from high school.
Riverside County was unable to collect from Hartley's mother, who subsists on untouchable aid for the disabled. So it has made Hartley, now 19, liable for the debt even though she was a minor when her mother signed up for welfare.
Hartley contends the overpayment was the county's fault. But administrative law judge Gilford Eastham in April denied her appeal, ruling she was indeed on the hook for the overpayments regardless of fault. Eastham also said Hartley's age at the time of the overpayment has no bearing on the debt now because she "is no longer a minor."
Riverside officials could not be reached for comment Friday, with county offices closed.
But state welfare authorities say counties are empowered to turn to the children once they become adults if the caregivers fail to take care of an overpayment and can't be found or otherwise forced to make good.
For Hartley and many other children of welfare families, advocates say the debt unknowingly hangs over their heads until they become adults and counties notify them they plan to attach their wages, seize their income tax returns and otherwise make them pay for the mistakes of their parents or bureaucrats.
"I have no idea how I can get through school while paying my mother's debts," said Hartley, who is attending community college in Riverside County. "I never knew this problem existed until the state started coming after me."
The CalWORKS program, which distributes about $267 million a month, was launched in 1997 as part of the Clinton Administration's vow to "end welfare as we know it." It limits payments to 60 months and requires adult recipients to work.
According to reports published by the Social Services Department, about $60 million in overpayments is recoupled each year, mostly through reduced welfare payments. Roughly a quarter is paid back through cash payments and interceptions of income tax refunds.
The lawyers representing Hartley and other welfare advocates believe that thousands of children are on the hook. That's because in California, 1.1 million out of the 1.4 million welfare recipients are children.
"This has been an issue for a while," said Kevin Aslanian, director of the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organization. "It's widespread."
For Clarence Ayers of Fresno, the issue is particularly frustrating. Ayers collects $344 in monthly welfare payments to care for his 14-year-old great- grand daughter Irene Lara. On July 19, Fresno County notified Ayers that it intended to reduce the payment by 10 percent monthly until a $2,846 debt Irene is now responsible for is cleared up.
"Irene A. Lara was overpaid in another case," reads the notice Ayers received. "Because that person is now a member of your family, the amount owed must be taken out of your cash aid amount."
Authorities say the overpayments occurred between March 1996 and March 1998. Irene was born in 1997.
To make matters worse, Ayers says Fresno County officials have lost the case file and are not sure what — or who — caused the overpayment that Irene must pay back. Irene's mother was a juvenile herself during that time and ineligible to apply for welfare on her own. Ayers believes his deceased son — Irene's grandfather — is ultimately responsible, but is still at loss as to why Irene is now responsible.
"I cannot figure what in the world is going on," Ayers said. "They are going after a young child."
Fresno County welfare officials did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The lawsuit that Ayers and Hartley have filed in Alameda County Superior Court with the help of two legal aid organizations seeks to stop the collection practice.
Patti Prunhuber, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Project that represents the pair, says welfare authorities are barred from filing lawsuits or seeking criminal charges for overpayments that are more than four years old. However, Prunhuber said that the Department of Social Services permits counties to recoup "extremely old" overpayments outside court through "administrative procedures" such as intercepting tax returns, attaching wages and reducing future welfare payments.
"We'd all like our kids to inherit something," Prunhuber said. "But I don't think indentured servitude is one of those."