ACLU on lawsuit: We’re trying to get poor people their food

ACLU on lawsuit: We’re trying to get poor people their food

PAWTUCKET – A class action lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice is about “getting poor people their food,” said a representative for the ACLU.

The entities filed the lawsuit over the state’s “ongoing, critical, and widespread failure to timely provide food stamp benefits to needy families due in large part to its transition to a new, and very troubled, computer system,” according to a release.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU, said the suit was filed only as a last resort.

“We kept on hoping things would get resolved, and they haven’t,” he said.

In response to some online criticism that ongoing problems with the state computer will be resolved by the time the case gets going, Brown said that state officials have indicated the problems won’t be resolved until June of next year, which would be a violation of strict federal requirements.

“It’s inconceivable that people at the poverty level can’t get their food,” he said.

The ACLU is taking the case on a pro bono basis, said Brown. The state will be required to pay attorney fees if the suit is successful. He said he wouldn’t dignify accusations from critics that the ACLU is simply trying to line its pockets at taxpayers’ expense, saying this case is only about protecting people.

The lawsuit argues that the “systematically inadequate and faulty statewide implementation of a new integrated computer system” designed to determine food stamp eligibility “continues to cause thousands of households to suffer the imminent risk of ongoing hunger as a result of being denied desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families.”

The Breeze has been reporting on the backlog of applications for state assistance for months. Communities like Woonsocket and Pawtucket have been hit especially hard by continued problems with a new state computer system.

Brenna McCabe, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Administration, said officials have been working closely with federal partners at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service to address concerns related to the food benefits, “and we continue to work with them to improve our services and carry out our corrective action plan.”

“It is no secret that connecting recipients with their SNAP benefits has been the top priority for our team since we launched the new eligibility system,” she said in a statement. “While we have taken action to improve services, we still share in the frustration our customers are experiencing. The team will review the ACLU’s complaint carefully as we continue to find ways to better serve our customers moving forward.”

Under federal law, states participating in the food stamp program are required to process food stamp applications within 30 days of the date of application, and to provide expedited food stamps to eligible households within seven days. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by ACLU volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger and attorneys for NCLEJ, was filed as a class action on behalf of all food stamp applicants affected by the failure on the part of the Department of Human Services to process applications in a timely manner.

The two named plaintiffs have endured the “Kafkaesque” food stamp application process created by the new system, facing multiple delays in getting their food stamps due to computer glitches, lost paperwork, and other problems, states the release.

Plaintiff Mea Martinez, a mother of three children from Woonsocket, submitted her application more than three months ago. Hearing nothing back after dropping off paperwork in late August, she went back to the DHS office one day in early October. She waited in line for four hours, but to no avail, as she was unable to see anybody, say ACLU representatives. Earlier this week, after months of unsuccessful efforts to obtain action from DHS, she finally heard back from a DHS worker and was told that she would have to start the process over if she did not appear that day with paperwork. She did so, but was then told her benefits could still not be processed because of computer issues. For the last three months, she has been going to food pantries to get critically needed food for her family of five.

The lawsuit notes that, as of less than a month ago, the state had failed to timely process half of the food stamp applications of the 3,303 neediest households that were entitled to expedited processing of their applications within seven days. The suit also cites the well-publicized correspondence between the federal government and the state in which the federal agency repeatedly expressed its concern that the computer system was not ready to go online, but the state went ahead anyway in switching over to the new Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) computer system.

The suit argues that the state’s “dilatory actions” in processing applications and providing benefits to eligible households violate the federal food stamp law and its implementing regulations.

Comments

Ms. Martinez' family has benefited from the generosity of food pantries and this is perhaps the path we should be taking. It would simplify matters if each town had a state sponsored food pantry where people could go and obtain the food they need, instead of a credit card. The pantries could distribute milk, eggs, bread, rice, meat etc... and we would be comfortable knowing that the food was instantly available to folks that need it. And, it would cut down on waste as we wouldn't see folks buying junk food, sugary drinks, etc... Problem solved!