After Velma M. left her abusive partner — afraid the violence would put her in the hospital — she and her four children became homeless.
But, had a state welfare policy been implemented the way the legislature intended, Velma M. would have received more aid, possibly preventing the family from becoming homeless, said Antionette Dozier, senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
The Western Center and four other agencies filed a lawsuit Thursday in Alameda Superior Court alleging that the California Department of Social Services has illegally narrowed state law to deny public assistance to some domestic violence survivors.
Dozier estimates that the eligibility changes, which appear to have occurred in late 2013, may have affected 250,000 people.
“This policy is frighteningly dangerous for moms and their children,” she said. “It’s a catch-22 for domestic violence abuse survivors who have to chose between the safety of their children and their economic stability, and no domestic abuse survivor should have to make that choice, and they certainly shouldn’t have to make that choice by the state agency who in the past was helping and supporting them.”
Michael Weston, spokesman for the department, said the department was served with the lawsuit Monday and is reviewing it. “Typically the department doesn’t comment on pending legislation,” he said.
Four women are named in the lawsuit, including Velma M., who is not identified in the court papers because of safety concerns. The lawsuit alleges that the department changed state law to restrict welfare for some domestic violence survivors who are disabled or undocumented.
Velma M. of San Joaquin County faced severe abuse from her former partner in 2013 and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the violence.
While pregnant with her fifth child, she fled to public housing, taking her kids but none of their belongings. She received $300 per month of welfare, called CalWORKS, for one of her children. The state refused to give her additional money for her other kids. She and her children soon became homeless, sleeping in their car for seven months.
The Social Services department denied Velma M.’s request for aid for her other children because she wasn’t participating in the state’s Welfare to Work program. However, Velma M. couldn’t participate in the program because she had debilitating PTSD, the Western Center contends.
Other domestic violence victims sometimes can’t participate in the Welfare to Work program because they have disabilities, are undocumented, don’t meet certain requirements or because going to their workplace might put them in harm’s way.
In 1997, the California legislature adopted the Family Violence Option, which allows domestic violence victims to receive aid even if they can’t participate in Welfare to Work.
The other agencies participating the lawsuit are California Rural Legal Assistance, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations.