The head of the District's Department of Human Services acknowledged yesterday that there have been serious problems in several multimillion-dollar contracts the city awarded to help women move off welfare and into jobs, and she vowed to demand more results in future contracts.
"There is a lot of room for improvement," Human Services Director Jearline F. Williams testified during a D.C. Council hearing, adding that her department will require future vendors to give women more training and assistance in finding jobs than called for under the city's existing contracts, which have fallen well short of their goals.
Williams also said that about 6,000 D.C. families have left the welfare rolls in the last 2 1/2 years, but neither she nor her administrators could say where those residents are, whether any of them have returned to welfare or exactly how many are still getting Medicaid or food stamps.
That acknowledgement frustrated council members who have struggled to get a handle on disorganization and other problems in the city's federally mandated welfare-to-work program.
"I asked them those questions a couple of different ways, and I didn't get an answer," council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), herself a welfare recipient several years ago, said after yesterday's hearing. "I want to know if we're improving these residents' quality of life or just shifting them somewhere else to be taken care of eventually by the government. The department has to do better outreach and tracking."
Human Services awarded eight contracts last year to help thousands of D.C. women get jobs as part of the welfare-to-work program. Under federal welfare laws, the District will lose millions of dollars if it fails to place a growing percentage of recipients in job-related activities each year.
In the case of one contract that could have been worth as much as $6.6 million, D.C. officials canceled the contract nine months after awarding it because the firm, G&S Associates, owned by dentist Arthur D. Stubbs, apparently had no experience in job placement or welfare case management. Officials cited G&S's performance and Stubbs's "inappropriate relationship" with the D.C. government official in charge of choosing welfare contractors. G&S filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract.
When Stubbs was awarded the contract, his application included supporting letters that apparently were from companies owned by Stubbs. And this spring, allegations surfaced that the acting head of the city's welfare office, A. Sue Brown, had steered the welfare contract to Stubbs.
In April, Williams fired Brown. Two procurement officers involved with the contract also left their jobs; officials would not say whether they were fired.
The Stubbs contract and the seven others the department awarded could have been worth as much as $52 million--well over half the city's annual federal block grant for welfare--if the private companies and nonprofit firms had reached every goal for every client assigned them. But the companies have fallen far short of their goals.
Human Services has rewritten its request for contract proposals, and when the current contracts expire in two months, new ones will be awarded. Williams said her department has "learned a great deal" from the first year of welfare-to-work contracts and said the new contracts will require vendors to provide women with more training and help in finding jobs.
The new contracts also will provide increased payments for vendors when a client finds a job and retains it for at least 12 weeks.
But Nina Dastur, of the Legal Aid Society, said yesterday that while the department "is learning lessons," the clock is ticking for the federal five-year time limit on temporary cash assistance for welfare recipients.
In August, about 13,000 adults were on D.C. welfare rolls who were considered eligible to work but not working. They have a finite amount of time to get their lives together: Federal law has imposed a lifetime limit of five years on welfare, and 2 1/2 years already have passed since that policy went into effect in the District.
"At the rate we are going, at the end of our five-year time limit, too few recipients will have living-wage jobs, and many families will be left in extreme poverty," said Kerry O'Brien, of the Zacchaeus Free Legal Clinic.
Officials have said the District has a large number of poorly educated recipients with few skills who are particularly hard to move off welfare. Williams said two-thirds of those on welfare read at or below a sixth-grade level.