The program was supposed to catch people who cheat on the District's welfare plan for temporarily disabled workers.
But it's discovered another type of fraud: qualified people who are being denied the benefits because they can't understand -- much less fill out -- the needed government forms.
"I did what the social worker told me to do," said Alice Pryor, 55, a diminutive domestic who said she had lost benefits because she doesn't understand phrases like "resume payments" and "vocational needs" and doesn't understand the form letters she gets regularly. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I have nothing to live off."
Alice Ricci, staff assistant to the administrator of the program, defends the forms. "I suppose as in anything, when the word is written, there might be illiterate people who don't understand. But the language (in the letters) is quite simple, clear and easy to read, and it lists numbers for people to call if they don't understand. We feel that we have done all that we can to protect those who would continue to be eligible."
Since April, when the crackdown was initiated, about 800 people have been taken off the program that had 6,700 recipients in March. Many were taken off the rolls because they didn't respond to notices or didn't comply with requirements in the specified time.
To qualify for the programs' $180-a-month payment, a worker must provide a medical evaluation that classifies him as disabled. Payments can continue as long as the worker is determined eligible by a medical review team.
But the new crackdown on cases has caught people who cannot read and who don't understand the government's form letters.They often are day laborers and domestics, people who lack disability health insurance or can't qualify for Social Security or other supplemental income programs when they are disabled.
Some of those taken off disability rolls, like Doris Walker, 42, a domestic who suffers from a broken leg, and Joseph Mack, 55, a self-employed painter with a broken ankle, say they were not told of their rights to appeal welfare agency decisions to close their cases, nor were they told they were eligible for free legal advice. Neither can read very well.
Others, like Pryor, say they were not told of their rights to continue receiving benefits until all appeals were exhausted. Walker, Mack and Pryor were denied benefits last month.
"Information we received . . . suggested that the . . . problems are widespread and not limited to the General Public Assistance program, but also existing Aid For Dependent Children cases," said Laura Macklin of Neighborhood Legal Services.
The dilemma faced by Pryor and others recently taken from the rolls, according to social workers and lawyers for the poor, is the city's rigid approach in enforcing eligibility guidelines. There's also pressure on social workers from supervisors to close cases and save money, and vague, often confusing, District directives, the critics say.
In the resulting confusion, people like Walker, Pryor and Mack fall through what one social worker called "the safety net" that the welfare program is supposed to provide.
"If you can demonstrate that you have a long-term disability, then you can get on Social Security or SSI," said Macklin. "But there are a lot of people classified as short-term disabled with a broken hip that won't heal, for example, or are genuinely disabled but have a hard time establishing eligibility under Social Security or SSI requirements and who face delays for those programs as long as two years."
Ronald C. Lewis, operations chief of the city's General Public Assistance programs, denies any deliberate effort to reduce the welfare rolls, but adds: "There is an effort to assure that only eligible clients will receive assistance."
Interviews with three social workers in the District government, however, tell a story of deliberate efforts to stop some payments. They say that because of pressure to expedite some cases, notices to some welfare recipients were backdated to meet certain review requirements.
"We gave most of the clients 30 days to have their medical forms turned in for recertification," said one social worker who asked not to be identified because of fear of retribution.
"It's not always easy for some of the clients who don't have private doctors and have to wait for clinics or agencies to prepare the papers and then send them in," he said. "Because of the red tape -- the paperwork -- the forms don't always get to the social worker on time and it's not always the clients' fault."
Social workers say cases without proper forms at review time are simply dropped from the program and the clients are told later that they must reapply, a process which usually takes several months.
Loren Holmwood, another District welfare official, rejects charges that the workers are attempting to block qualified people. "We would not willy-nilly go and close a case if a client has a good reason for not having medical forms in on time," she says. "And, if a person asks for a hearing and the hearing is granted, we wouldn't terminate the payment until the decision has been reached."
But domestic worker Alice Pryor says she was frightened when she received a June 20, 1980 letter from the program saying that she would no longer receive benefits after July 31. "I can read, but sometimes I don't understand some of the words they use," said Pryor, a native of a small Virginia town who moved to the District more than 14 years ago.
Efforts to get the District's side of her case were cut short by her welfare case worker, Larry Barnes. "I have 400 clients and the name Alice Pryor really doesn't mean a lot to me," said Barnes. He declined to comment specifically on Pryor's case.
"Last month, I had to close 40 cases," he said, noting that a number of clients have trouble reading and writing. "I don't think the amount of time (clients get to comply with regulations) is fair. It's not long enough." t
Social workers say many of the temporarily disabled aid recipients are workers in their 40s and 50s and are poorly educated. Some are drifters with no fixed addresses.
Many others, however, like Pryor and Doris Walker, have worked a long time in poor-paying occupations, and took pride in being able to take care of themselves.
Doris Walker lives alone in a $100-a-month, second-story one-bedroom apartment in Shaw in Northwest Washington, next door to a Wonder Bread bakery. Three years ago, Walker said, she broke her right leg which never healed properly.
"I don't remember being sent a letter saying that my money would be cut off. They sent me this letter here," she said, opening up the letter for a visitor to see.
The form letter read: "Your name has been referred to the Bureau of Rehabilitative Services by the Social Securities Administration. We are very anxious to explore with you your vocational needs. So that we can inform you about our services to the handicapped, an appointment has been made for you with Joan K. Wills."
"Do you know what they are talking about?" said Walker, who doesn't understand the meaning of the word "vocational." "I don't know the first thing about this letter, and I won't until I go down to the office and talk to this lady.
"No one told me about having to get another physical," Walker said. "I have trouble understanding the letters that they send. I always have to go downtown (to a welfare office) and get someone to explain the letters to me. I'm worried now because I don't have money for rent, they took away my food stamps and I'm still not able to work. Some relatives helped me this month, but I can't keep borrowing money."
Joseph Mack, a self-employed painter, still bristles in anger when he recalls how his social worker is impatient because he has trouble understanding the procedures for keeping his paper work up to date. He lowered his head when a friend, Justus Hayes, told a reporter that Mack cannot read or write.
"I got a letter, I didn't understand it well, but I gave it to my niece and she said the letter said I had to reapply," Mack said. "I wasn't able to do it right away because I had to leave town because of a death in my family.
"When I got back, I had to get on a bus to get to Kennedy Street (the address of his local agency) and they told me to take some papers back to Taylor Street (the address of the agency's central welfare recertification office). I had to get back on a bus with this foot," he said, showing a black shoe with one side of it cut out to accommodate his swollen foot and ankle, broken in a fall from a ladder several months ago.
"When I got to Taylor Street, they wouldn't even look at my papers," Mack said angrily. "They told me I had to mail them in."