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Judge says Md. at fault for thousands going without food stamps

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By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

A Maryland judge ruled Thursday that the state government is failing to provide food stamps and other public benefits as promptly as federal and state law requires.

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Thousands of families have been affected by the delays over the last few years, and in announcing his decision, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams said the Maryland Department of Human Resources had engaged in a pattern and practice of violating the law.

The judge gave the department 45 days to provide a plan to correct the problems and a year to bring the agency into full compliance with the laws governing food stamps, temporary cash assistance and medical aid.

DHR Secretary Brenda Donald said in a statement that the agency had already been working on a plan and that it had told the court it would need 18 months to implement it. "While reaching full compliance within 12 months will be a challenge," Donald said, "I believe we have the right strategies in place and are moving in the right direction." Across the country, she said, state social services agencies are grappling with the same challenges, and no state is in full compliance.

Generally, people who qualify for such benefits must begin receiving them within 30 days, but in thousands of instances across Maryland, needy families have waited weeks longer for assistance.

The struggles of a woman who applied for benefits in Baltimore County, where delays have been widespread, led to the filing of a lawsuit in April by the Public Justice Center and other advocates for the poor.

Miracyle Thompson, who had waited more than 60 days for food stamps, got her benefits soon after the lawsuit was filed with her as the named plaintiff. But she and the advocates behind the suit persisted, hoping to force changes in DHR and, in particular, an agency called the Family Investment Administration.

The case went to trial this week in Baltimore Circuit Court, and what emerged was a portrait of an agency under great strain. Hundreds of employees have left in recent years and have not been replaced because of the long-standing state hiring freeze. About 12o positions in Family Investment are vacant, and with low pay and tedious work, the jobs can be hard to fill.

Meanwhile, the number of people seeking aid has been increasing, driven by the state's efforts to reach more poor people and, of late, the nationwide economic downturn. During the last two years, Maryland has seen a 44 percent increase in its food stamp caseload.

Debra Gardner, legal director of the Public Justice Center, said she and other advocates hoped the appointment of Donald in 2007 would be the answer. But a couple of years into Donald's tenure, they concluded that the problem went beyond the secretary's office and that it would to take legal action to force the state's hand, Gardner said. "There were failures at all levels to really focus on this problem and solve it," Gardner said.

And for the poor, the effects were stark, Gardner said. Thompson was skipping meals so she could feed her children. Earline Augustus-El, a diabetic who joined the lawsuit later, was going without insulin.


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