Lawsuit Succeeds in Stopping State Welfare Agencies from Illegally Forcing Children to Repay Money Paid to Parents

Recent Coverage – May 12, 2012: California to stop going after children for caregivers’ debts.

May 10, 2012 – Settling a highly-publicized lawsuit filed by two teenage girls, the State of California has agreed to halt its practice of forcing children to repay the old welfare debts of their parents, grandparents, or guardians. The settlement in this case, Hartley v. Lightbourne, will protect thousands of innocent children throughout the state from this illegal debt collection practice.

Both of the girls were children when their guardians were supposedly overpaid family cash assistance grants, commonly known as CalWORKs. One of them was not born when most of the money was originally paid to her family. Yet despite the unfairness and illegality of holding children to account for the debts of their parents and guardians, the California Department of Social Services (DSS) routinely forced the girls – and thousands of children like them — to repay the money.

“This is great news for California’s neediest children and the adults who look after them,” said Patti Prunhuber, of the Public Interest Law Project, one of the groups representing the girls. “We commend DSS Director Will Lightbourne for working with us to end this policy. These children were not responsible for these overpayments and, just when they are trying to overcome the disadvantages of growing up in poverty, it was wrong to demand they repay them.”

Responding to the lawsuit filed in November,California’s Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, publicly called for the DSS to end the practice, stating, “Children should never be punished for the sins of their parents – and most certainly not for administrative errors.”

Early on, Diana Dooley, the state’s Health and Human Services director, stated that she and the DSS director Will Lightbourne were “committed to” ending the policy and just last week the DSS agreed to issue new instructions to counties to stop collecting, or return any monies it has withheld as of January 6, 2012 under this old policy. The DSS also pledged to issue new regulations to end the policy.

One person celebrating the settlement is Clarence Ayers, the great-grandfather and guardian of 14-year-old Irene L, one of the petitioners. Ayers was told last July that the $334 per month that CalWORKs paid him for Irene’s support was being docked to repay about $10,000 mistakenly paid years ago to Irene’s mother and even earlier, her grandfather. “Irene wasn’t even born when some of that money was paid,” said Ayres. “She was being punished for something she never did.”

“This was the right result,” said Antionette Dozier of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the other group representing the petitioners. “Rather than defending an indefensible policy, Mr. Lightbourne and other state officials agreed that the law must be fair and transparent, especially when it concerns minors in need. The former policy had to be thrown out.”

January 7, 2011 – Going forward, the state agrees to stop collections of parents’ CalWorks debts against former minors. No refunds of money already collected, and state still pursuing current minors no longer living in the overpaid household.

See more articles on this suit by The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and ABC TV.

November 24, 2011 – In a lawsuit filed November 23, 2011, in Alameda County Superior Court, Hartley & Ayers v. Lightbourne, two girls, 14 and 19 years old, are asking the Court to call an immediate halt to California’s illegal practice of forcing children to repay the old welfare debts of their parents or guardians.

Both girls were children when their guardians were supposedly overpaid CalWORKs cash benefits. One of them was not even born when most of the money was originally paid out. Yet despite the unfairness and illegality of holding children accountable for the debts of their parents or guardians, the California Department of Social Services (DSS) is now forcing the plaintiffs to repay the money.

The result is that the plaintiffs, like the estimated tens of thousands of people in the same position, are being driven further into poverty and robbed of the chance to become self-sufficient.

One of the petitioners, Irene L., 14, is being raised by her great-grandfather, Clarence Ayers, in Fresno County. Mr. Ayers gets $334 per month in CalWORKs aid to pay for Irene’s needs. The county was threatening to cut Irene’s grant to repay almost $3,000 mistakenly paid to her mother in 1996-1998. “I don’t understand how the county can come after Irene for a debt that happened when she wasn’t even born,” said Ayers, who is also a party to the suit. “She is being punished for something she never did, and we already don’t have enough money to pay for her basic living expenses.”

The mother of petitioner Jamie Hartley, 19, was mistakenly given too much CalWORKs money about three years ago. Now DSS is seeking to pay itself back by garnishing Jamie’s wages and her tax refund – money she needs to buy college textbooks and pay off debts. “I have no idea how I can get through school while paying my mother’s debts,” she said. “I never knew this problem existed until the state started coming after me.”

“To saddle young people with the debts of previous generations is both illegal and immoral,” said Antionette Dozier of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the attorneys  representing the petitioners. “These children are not responsible for these debts and, just when they are trying to overcome the disadvantages of growing up in poverty, it is wrong to demand it.”

“Indentured servitude was abolished a long time ago,” said Public Interest Law Project attorney Patti Prunhuber, who also represents the petitioners. “Our clients are two of potentially thousands of young people being targeted by DSS for debt collection. We want the court to tell DSS that this illegal practice has to stop right now.”

The lawsuit asks the court to require DSS to throw out any regulations that allow state or county agencies to seek debt repayments from current or former CalWORKs children, and to force welfare agencies to issue reimbursements for overpayments illegally collected.

About the Public Interest Law Project and the Western Center on Law and Poverty

The Public Interest Law Project (http://www.pilpca.org) and the Western Center on Law and Poverty (www.wclp.org) are prominent public interest law firms focusing on, among other pursuits, impact litigation and advocacy on behalf of disadvantaged Californians.

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