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Lawsuit challenges denial of benefits to the mentally ill

Friday, July 09, 2004

Lawsuit challenges denial of benefits to the mentally ill

Alameda County social workers are wrongfully denying benefits to the mentally ill by failing to recognize that their disabilities make it hard for them to fill out the necessary forms, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The lawsuit challenges the county's two most-frequently cited reasons for denying benefits: failing to submit a monthly eligibility report and failing to work at least 80 hours per month -- or providing medical proof that they are exempt from work requirements.

Although as many as one-third of the county's general-assistance recipients have mental disabilities, social service workers provided a far smaller figure of 2 percent, the suit said.

The figures suggest that the county has "illegally and unfairly deprived large numbers of mentally disabled men and women of life-sustaining government assistance" in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the suit said.

"The county's really failed to make accommodations for implementing policies or procedures that help screen individuals for disabilities, especially mental disabilities,'' said Kevin Knestrick, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. "They get terminated from benefits and have nowhere else to go."

The Oakland firm and other public-interest law groups, including the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The suit names as defendants the County of Alameda, the Board of Supervisors and the county's social services agency and its director, Chet Hewitt.

Social services spokeswoman Sylvia Myles said Wednesday that identifying those with mental disabilities is "a very slippery slope" for agencies across the state, as some clients don't proactively say whether they are disabled and may feel violated if assumptions are made.

Alameda County intake employees are not trained health professionals, making the process even more challenging, she said.

"This is not an issue that is specific to Alameda County," Myles said. "All social service agencies are grappling with how to meet the needs of their GA population as the economy worsens and the GA rolls rise."

The named plaintiffs in the suit, Frank Santos, Diane Qualls and Rebecca Johnson, said their benefits were cut off, without regard to their mental disabilities, when they didn't abide by stringent reporting requirements.

Qualls has been receiving $336 per month in general assistance and $80 per month in food stamps. The county wrongfully discontinued her from those benefits without warning because she allegedly failed to submit the necessary form, the suit said. She was later reinstated but was not paid retroactively for the time she did not receive benefits, the suit said.

Mentally ill people who don't receive benefits as expected are deprived of basic needs such as food and shelter and could become homeless -- unless they already are -- or sick, the suit said.

Myles said county supervisors voted last week to allocate $5.2 million to continue general assistance welfare payments to 1,450 county residents.

"Our commitment to the GA population could not have been demonstrated more strongly than the most recent budget," she said.

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