A federal judge has ordered the Maryland Department of Human Resources to begin immediately giving needy families with dependent children emergency grants to pay delinquent utility bills.
The injunction, issued last week by U.S. District Court Judge Herbert R. Murray, requires the state to pay utility bills for needy families throughout the state who have been denied such emergency aid because of state regulations and who face imminent cutoffs of heat and lights.
Murray said the state cannot impose additional restrictions upon the federal requirements for eligibility in the Emergency Assistance for Needy Families with Children program. The state paid more than $2.2 million under the emergency program last fiscal year.
One of the three Baltimore families who filed the class-action suit with the Baltimore Welfare Organization has been without heat or lights for three months. Two other families have been threatened with utility cutoffs.
Joel J. Rabin, as assistant attorney general representing the Department of Human Resources, argued that the families already were receiving welfare aid and could have chosen to pay the utility bills instead of other bills.
Murray questioned that position, asking Rabin if he was saying the families should give up buying food in order to pay the utility bills.
"They probably shouldn't give up food," Rabin replied, "because then they would lose their food stamps."
The emergency program, funded equally bu the state and federal governments is only part of a "very liberal" state welfare program for needy families, Rabin said. He added that the state preferred to limit emergency aid to families suffering "disasters" such as court-ordered evictions, theft of money or extreme weather conditions.
This winter "is not that abnormal yet," Rabin said.
James Lyko, a legal aide lawyer representing the families, said the state could not legally impose such "disaster" requirements upon the federal regulations for eligibility. Congress, in enacting the law, stated that utility cut-offs would qualify families for emergency aid, Lyko said.
In ordering the emergency aid, Murray said there was a possibility of "grave and irreparable harm to class members who are denied emergency aid to restore heat and utility service. Without such assistance, families are being force to alter their living arrangements with resulting stress on family life ... and possibly jeopardizing the health of the children."
The only harm to the state "is monetary," and "clearly the public interest is served when children are given the minimum need for a healthy situation."