Securing Social Services Support for a Survivor

By Sarah Cho, Staff Attorney, Public Benefits

On April 29, Michelle Hardy (fictitious name) contacted our office regarding a notice she received from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) that denied her request for a medical exemption to CalWORKs’ Welfare-to-Work requirements. CalWORKs is a cash benefit for families with children with limited means, and its Welfare-to-Work program requires recipients to engage in work or work-related activities to continue receiving benefits. Because this exemption was denied, she would have to meet the Welfare-to-Work requirements, which she could not because of her PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders.

At the time she got the notice, Michelle was being treated by a psychiatrist and attending community college. She first moved to California several years ago in order to escape an abusive relationship, which precipitated her mental health conditions. Despite having worked her entire adult life, she found she could no longer sustain work. Since coming to California, she attempted to hold two full-time jobs, but was unable to maintain either of them due to her mental health symptoms that interfered with consistent work. When she got the notice from CalWORKs, she worried that she may become homeless again and not be able to provide for herself and her four-year-old daughter if she lost the benefits. The assistance from CalWORKs was an important part in allowing her to stay housed and continue her education so that she could become as resourced and resilient as possible to overcome this difficult period in her life.

On May 21, our office and Michelle signed a retainer for us to represent her in an appeal of the denial. While the appeal was pending, I also advised her to request a CalWORKs domestic abuse waiver, which would, similar to the medical exemption, allow her to continue receiving CalWORKs notwithstanding her inability to meet the full Welfare-to-Work requirements. Even though she was no longer in immediate danger, she was clearly still suffering the effects of the trauma she had experienced. She made the request for a domestic abuse waiver and, to our disappointment, received a notice in June denying the request.

Our office then signed a second retainer to represent Michelle in the appeal of both notices. I interviewed her further and wrote a letter in support of her case and submitted it to the local office and the State Hearings Division. In August, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) appeals worker contacted me, and I had several conversations about her case. Through our conversations, it was determined that Michelle was most likely able to maintain eligibility through the medical exemption. I thus sent a letter to her psychiatrist before her next appointment requesting that she re-fill out the form with information on Michelle’s ability to engage in work activities given her conditions. Shortly after, I was able to speak with the psychiatrist by phone. It turned out the psychiatrist had received inaccurate information from CDSS, which had caused her to write information that disqualified Michelle from the medical exemption.

The psychiatrist filled out the form, and I submitted it to CDSS. In September, the appeals worker contacted Michelle and our office and informed us that the exemption had been approved. She thus withdrew her two appeals and was able to continue to qualify for CalWORKs.

During the months that I represented her, Michelle thought several times about quitting. She had gone before an Administrative Law Judge regarding her CalWORKs matter once before, and that incident had taken a major toll on her mental health. I made clear with her that I would do my best to advocate for a resolution before the hearing, and that if that was not possible, she would have the option to reassess whether she’d like to withdraw closer to the date. Fortunately, this matter was resolved without needing to appear before a judge.

Because Michelle had other social services needs besides the legal case, she was referred to CLA SoCal case manager Abigail Resendiz-Zuñiga, on staff as part of our organization’s commitment to providing holistic services to our clients. Abi was able to share valuable psychoeducation regarding trauma-informed therapy, visit her to provide masks for her and her daughter, and refer her to an organization that provides furniture to domestic violence survivors. The timing was perfect, because Michelle was approved for HUD housing during this period and was able to not only move, but also furnish without further burden to her finances.

Today, I am pleased to say Michelle is actively working on healing, continuing to be supported by CalWORKs, has stable housing, and has recently transferred to a local university, where she is continuing her education so that she can better support herself and her daughter in the future.