U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson told D.C. Department of Human Resources officials yesterday, that he no long would tolerate the agency's failure to process welfare applications on time, a practice that he ordered two years ago.
Robinson several times expressed exasperation as welfare officials explained in court their unsuccessful attempts to meet the mandate in the face of budget and staff deficiences, priorities in other program and supply shortages.
"This thing is going to stop; it's going to stop right here; it's the law," Robinson warned DHR officials during the second day of hearings on a contempt motion filed by legal aid lawyers against the continued violations of Robinsons order and federal regulations.
A brief conflict developed for the first time at the hearings between an assistant corporation counsel defending the department and the private attorney for suspended DHR director Joseph P. Yeldell, who is fighting to avoid personal liability for the violations.
Jacaueline Jhonson, head of DHR's welfare branch until last June, and her successor, Bertrell Hallum both testified that they repeatedly informed subordinates of the court order and its significance but were unable to effect compliance.
Johnson said she knew and conveyed to contempt and subject as individuals or as a group to jail sentences." She also acknowledged that the city risked penalties from the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
DHR was unable to fill staff vacancies that reached nearly 30 per cent in 1976 because of a city freeze on hiring, the officials said. Hellum told the judge the overtime and shifting staff were ineffective solutions to the problem and that he had "no ready solutions" to propose.
"Just running from fire to fire, depending on where the fire is at a given moment," Judge Robinson commented. He emphasized several times that the 45-day limit on processing applications was a federal requirement and not of his design.The judge suggested at one point that HEW is less than vigilant in enforcing that rule.
"What do you tell HEW that you don't tell us? They just ignore it down there," Robinson said.
The contempt motion filed by legal aid attorneys also charged DHR with failing to notify applicants of their right to a timely decision under Robinson's orders. Forms used to notify applicants were never updated and had been out of stock for months, witnesses said. The judge observed that he felt "everybody forgot. They thought (the notice to applicants) was irrelevant, immaterial."
Yeldell's attorney, Gary R. Myers, attempted late in the hearing to ask a question that he said would show that the welfare backlog was discussed "from the lowest level of the department up to the mayor."
The witness, acting DHR director Albert P. Russo, who replaced Yeldell six week ago, was interruped before he answered by an objection from the assistant corporation counsel, Mellie Nelson, who asserted that the question was irrelevant.
Judge Robinson observed quickly that he was "not interested in what they talked about . . . what did they do?"