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Friday, April 22, 2005

CALFORNIA LIFTS LIFETIME BAN ON FOOD STAMPS FOR DRUG FELONS


By Carol Harvey

The rich and powerful often have a close personal relationship with addictive substances. Every month or so, it seems, a famous Hollywood actor is caught with drugs. Neither media figures nor politicians are exempt. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh recently entered rehab to dry out from addictive, illegally obtained pain pills.

America's foremost born-again Christian, President George W. Bush, was known to have abused alcohol. His former sister-in-law, Sharon, tattled to tabloid biographer Kitty Kelly that, at Camp David during his father's presidency, the younger Bush used the drug of choice in high social circles - cocaine.

Confessing to the abuse of drugs and alcohol may take real courage for politicians, which explains why so few step forward. Dr. Abraham Twerski, director of the Gateway Treatment Center in Pittsburgh, noted that power-brokers fear loss of status after admitting to addiction. Twerski cited many recovery meetings on Capitol Hill and "state capitols, city halls and municipal buildings across the country. You just don't know about them."

Drug use has infiltrated all strata of society. California Association of Food Banks Board President Suzan Bateson said, "In 1969, you could have walked down almost any street in California and picked up somebody (now in their mid-50s) who could have been popped for a drug offense. (They) might have gone on to be very successful, maybe were contributors to society for many years as well, (then) come on hard times, and need a little help (to feed) their families."

In recognition of the hardships faced by poor mothers in providing for their families after recovery from drug addiction, San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno authored a compassionate reform bill in the state legislature, AB 1796, that lifted the lifetime ban on food stamps for recovering addicts convicted of felony drug possession. The bill, signed into law by the governor on October 1, 2004, went into effect on January 1, 2005.

Laura Bibelheimer, Leno's legislative assistant, said he worked long and hard, successfully lobbying Gov. Schwarzenegger to sign the opt-out bill into law out of his concern for the group most impacted by the lifetime food stamp ban, poor mothers like Oakland resident Ramona Choyce and their children. "It was a great accomplishment," she said.

Leno told Street Spirit, "Those who served time for possession are, in many cases, young women with children. We know for a fact that a young mother, often from ethnic communities with limited resources, who must... provide herself food, will have that much less to spend on her children. Children who go to school hungry are more likely to fail. Those who fail are more likely to drop out. Those who drop out are more likely to find themselves in the criminal justice system. Here we see that our failed policymaking produces failed results."

I asked Leno why he pursued this legislation so vigorously.

"It seemed like a great injustice had been done by Congress in placing this lifetime ban on eligibility for food stamps for those who have been convicted of drug felonies," Leno said. "It only becomes more clear when you realize that someone could have served time for murder, rape, child molestation, bank robbery and be eligible."

The prohibition on food stamps for drug offenders was imposed in 1996 as part of the Federal Welfare Reform Act. Bateson observed, "This is a state-by-state decision. States were given the option to change or modify the restriction."

As of January 1, 2005, California has joined 32 other states, including Maine, New York, Iowa, Ohio, and the District of Columbia, in opting out of the ban, exercising a federal option to provide food stamp benefits "in support of individuals' efforts to successfully recover from drug lifestyles," wrote Schwarzenegger.

The Governor stated "universally denying food stamp benefits to people with felony drug convictions has created additional obstacles to independent drug-free living and increases the likelihood of re-offending behavior."

Suzan Bateson, who is also the executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank, said, "To ban (recovered drug abusers) for a lifetime seemed like such a ridiculously punitive move. It's time to be a lot more enlightened. It is a waste of energy and resources to deny families the right to have food stamps because in 1969 they may have been caught with a small amount of marijuana. I mean, c'mon, we've got better things to do with our time."

The Assembly bill continues to prohibit drug pushers and manufacturers from receiving food stamps.

Said Leno, "Unfortunately, we had to limit our opt-out bill to just those who had been convicted of drug possession (as opposed to) possession with intent to sell, which is a slightly larger quantity, or the felony of selling drugs, manufacturing, distributing. There is still an inequity there," he said, sounding a bit disappointed.

Leno's bill, AB 1796, affects at least 1,640 former California drug felons denied food stamps last year. The bill mandates that they must first serve out their sentences and complete a recognized drug program.

The Alameda County Community Food Bank is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The Food Bank provides access to nutritious food to about 120,000 Alameda County residents each month, and also works to remove barriers like the drug felony ban for all families seeking food stamps.

Bateson agreed with Bibelheimer that Leno "was really instrumental in making this piece of legislation go through."

"There had been a long history of failed attempts by anti-hunger activists to try to get this kind of legislation passed," Bateson added. "It was always defeated either by the legislature or vetoed by the California governor."

The Alameda County Community Food Bank has been working for years on this issue, along with other anti-hunger advocates. The California Hunger Action Coalition and L.A. Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness led the work by coordinating letter campaigns and meetings with legislators and the governor.

Bateson explained that they informed state legislators that, even though "this was a difficult piece of legislation because it was talking about people who, quote-unquote, have committed crimes, it was really time for it to be brought forward."

Bateson observed that AB 1796 "had come before the governor and legislature several times, hadn't moved forward at all, and people were kind of dispirited with regard to it. However, we just thought it was one that we should keep putting on the radar screen, but we weren't going to see that needle move."

Bateson said the Food Bank's hard fight to pass AB 1796 geared up in the autumn of 2003. She said the impetus was a funders' conference where Food Bank staff discussed with other anti-hunger advocates the possibility of introducing a bill to end the ban during the 2004 legislative session.

In January 2004, this group, which included the California Association of Food Banks and groups belonging to the California Hunger Action Coalition, approached Leno, who had already introduced the bill. Leno was able to connect anti-hunger advocates with the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that played an essential role in getting the bill passed. What made a real difference in the success of the legislative effort this year was that anti-hunger advocates were able to work hand in hand with recovery advocates.

I asked Bateson why the Governor stepped up to the plate and signed the bill.

"I think there is a lot to be said for Mark Leno really taking this on," she said. "I'm talking from one person's perspective, but I think Leno was really good with him. Leno was really committed to getting this ban lifted. He was very polite and politic in the way he interfaced with the governor. It could have been the right time, but Leno was definitely the right guy for it, because he held his ground and stood firm."

Bateson agreed with the speculation by activists that, even though 31 other states had already lifted the ban, California's former governor, Gray Davis, wishing to appear tough on crime, kept it in place.

Leno said in an interview, "In their wisdom, (Congress) allowed states to opt out, and though 32 states already had, California had not taken advantage of that opt-out provision. Not for lack of trying. Previous legislators had successfully authored similar bills in slightly different fashion only to have them vetoed by Gray Davis who, unfortunately, on issues of criminal justice was rarely open-minded. So, with the new governor, I thought that it was worth giving a try."

Activists pointed to the Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT card as a mechanism preventing food stamp fraud. Bateson said, "There was a lot of concern about fraud and about food stamps getting into the wrong hands, and would people trade them for drugs, or cash, or whatever." The EBT card, an electronic debit swipe card, now solves this problem.

Gov. Schwarzenegger wrote, "Technological developments in the benefit delivery system and... the successful implementation of the Electronic Benefit Transfer system assures that food stamp benefits cannot be easily exchanged or converted into drugs."

Activists argued that another good reason to pass the bill was that money from the federal government would help invigorate California's flagging economy. Denial of food stamps to felons, together with those who just don't apply, has cost California approximately $2 million in federal food stamp assistance annually.

On the bill's passage, the Governor acknowledged, "Food stamp benefits are entirely federally funded, and AB 1796 will bring millions of dollars into the state's economy at little cost to the state."

As Bateson pointed out, food stamps are a federal entitlement program. When the State of California gets money for food stamps, it does not come out of state funds, but from the federal government. She said, "It provides commerce in our cities and communities, which brings dollars into the economy of the state and into the grocery companies up and down the state."

"When the bill was passed, we were absolutely thrilled!" she said. "We are very excited about getting anybody who meets eligibility requirements into the federal food stamp program."

Bateson acknowledged that the food stamp program "doesn't solve the problem of hunger, but it really does help families. It provides 10 days to two weeks worth of groceries for them, which eases the burden on food banks.

"It helps organizations like ours who are trying very hard to put food on the tables of hungry people in our community. We don't have the resources to provide enough food for a month for a family's needs. That is a constant battle for us."

Sunday, April 17, 2005

THE ORDEAL OF RAMONA CHOYCE
CALIFORNIA LIFTS LIFETIME DRUG FELON FOOD STAMP BAN


OAKLAND MOTHER RAMONA CHOYCE IS STILL BANNED FROM RECEIVING FOOD STAMPS

Many wealthy Americans with substance abuse problems possess the means to pay for drug rehabilitation programs and nutritious food to speed their recovery. But what of young mothers like Ramona Choyce, an Oakland resident and recovering addict who lives in extreme poverty?

Ramona's two-year crack habit began in 1998 after the birth of her first baby, "because my baby's daddy was abusing, and I was curious." Child Protective Services removed two of Ramona's four children to foster care. Because she could have lost her youngest son, Jahiem, as well, her motivation to beat her addiction was strong.

"CPS would have taken my baby if I was still using," she said. After three years of imprisonment for drug possession and her successful completion of a recovery program, Ramona has been clean for five years.

"I learned a very big lesson," she confessed. Her goal is to stabilize herself financially and secure adequate housing to get her older children back.

In recognition of the difficulties facing poor mothers like Ramona in providing for their families following recovery from drug addiction, S.F. Assemblyman Mark Leno championed Assembly Bill 1796, and succeeded in lifting the lifetime ban on food stamps for recovering addicts convicted of felony drug possession.

The bill went into effect on January 1, 2005; but the passage of AB 1796 was only half the battle. Word of its passage has been slow to reach those whose quality of life it would benefit.

Leno's bill requires former drug felons to first serve out their sentences and complete a recognized drug program. Ramona Choyce met both requirements by 2003, making her eligible for food stamps now.

Yet, many former users have completed their sentences and drug programs, but are unaware that they may now receive food stamps because they have fulfilled the requirements.

Bill Hart, executive director of San Francisco's General Assistance Advocacy Project (GAAP), expressed concern that former drug felons across California, believing they were prohibited for life from receiving the benefit, have been forced to use their children's food stamps to feed their families.

Social service agencies seem not to actively disseminate such information, nor do they assertively administer benefits to their clients. No mailings seem to have been sent or announcements made. In Ramona Choyce's case, the agencies seem to have taken steps that actively barred her receipt of her food stamp entitlement.

In managing her complicated life, Ramona resembles a circus performer balancing spinning plates on sticks. A roommate will soon move out, leaving Ramona with $950 in monthly rent payments she cannot meet. A male relative who was helping out lost benefits when he turned 18. Visits to friends and her church's food pantry help supplement what little food she has. Food stamps would considerably ease her financial strain.

At age 26, Ramona has found a job working 15-plus hours a week as a nurse's aide to a 108-year-old woman.

Ramona's goal is to stabilize her family financially to get her older children back. However, despite having successfully met the bill's requirements, and procuring a new job, Ramona is still forced to use her son's food stamps to feed her family of four: two children, her sister and herself.

Just before the passage of AB 1796, Ramona called the Alameda County Food Bank hotline. The hotline put Sacramento Bee reporters in touch with Ramona, and they reported about her case in an article about the bill published on December 29, 2004. In January, Ramona twice spoke about the provisions of AB 1796 with her social worker at Alameda County Social Services Benefit Center, and asked to apply for food stamps. Apparently, both times the worker told Ramona that she had "heard nothing about" the AB 1796 food stamp benefit.

"The ban was lifted January 1, but not everyone who processes the applications in counties across California knows about it," said Suzan Bateson, executive director of the Alameda County Food Bank. "County officials, unaware of the new law, may not have changed their protocols yet. They may not have been able to make all the changes necessary to go ahead and accept these applications."

As regulations are written, Leno's staff keeps in touch with the California Human Services Department to ensure the wording honors the bill's intention. "The devil is in the regulations," Leno said, "so we have been keeping an eye on how the department will craft its regulations for the implementation, and we need to make sure that no changes are made from the way we had agreed to things."

Jessica Bartholow, Alameda County Food Bank director of education, advocacy, and outreach, stated, "It is my understanding that the January 1st implementation gives counties up to six months to comply." By July 1, 2005, the ban should be fully lifted statewide.

Bartholow also wondered whether that meant clients would receive retroactive pay back to January 1, 2005.

In answer to a query on this point, Andrea Ford, interim policy director at Alameda County Social Services, wrote in a March 28th e-mail: "We are issuing benefits effective January 1, 2005, for individuals who have applied effective this date or applicants who applied for benefits in December... if the disqualified drug felon met all the eligibility conditions (including verification that the use of controlled substance has ceased).

"All other applications are processed according to the date the individual applies for benefits. We cannot go back and issue benefits retroactively to January if the person did not apply for food stamp benefits. (A food stamp application is required for all individuals in order to determine eligibility.)"

In January 2005, because the Alameda County worker told Ramona she knew nothing about AB 1796, Ramona could not submit the food stamp application provided her by the Alameda County Food Bank. The worker's ignorance of the law effectively blocked Ramona from finalizing the requisite paperwork.

This raises the question as to whether Ramona should receive retroactive food stamps from the time she approached the worker and was turned away, rather than from the later date on which she will be forced to apply. Leno told me he would have his staff look into this question.

Andrea Ford's e-mail response clearly indicates a complete knowledge of Bill 1796 and the implications flowing from it. This raises the serious issue of why one of her staff was uninformed about this bill. Additionally, if the Alameda County Food Bank and the Sacramento Bee knew about the bill's passage, why was an employee at Alameda County Social Services Benefit Center, the food stamp dispensing agency, unaware?

Some argue that Social Services workers labor under a barrage of rules and regulations, and can't keep up with the changes. This explanation seems insufficient, especially since Social Services itself is responsible for creating this convoluted tissue of rules. It is clearly the responsibility of Alameda County Social Services directors to stay alert to new laws that make major changes to such a vitally important lifeline program as food stamps, and to train their workers accordingly.

Why does it devolve to the food stamp applicant, already mired in poverty and recovery, to be fully cognizant of rules and regulations too complex for the social service worker? The end result of the County staff's "lack of knowledge" is that food does not reach the tables of deserving and hungry families.

Laura Bibelheimer, Leno's legislative assistant, phoned Ramona Choyce and urged her to take the documentation of her drug program completion to the social worker when she applied. Prepared to do so, Ramona approached her social worker a second time on March 25, 2005. This time the worker stated she first knew of AB 1796 in February. Again, if the Food Bank knew about the bill in January 2005, why wasn't the agency first in line to administer it?

Ramona said that the Social Services worker insisted that even if she submitted her application and proof of successful drug program completion, the worker still had final, arbitrary power to accept or deny Ramona's food stamp petition.

AB 1796 sets forth two requirements. First, the person must have served their prison sentence. And second, as Leno stated, "The individual would have had to enroll in or complete a drug treatment program or would self-certify that he or she was sober." The individual's written and signed assertion of sobriety is enough.

Considering that the Department of Corrections can verify Ramona did her jail time, and she possesses certification proving she completed her drug rehab program in 2003, I asked Leno whether the worker had unilateral power to override AB 1796 with her own judicial decision.

"I would challenge that," Leno said. "From my understanding of the final form of the bill, the woman would be breaking State law." Leno added that, unfortunately, problems like these are "often the case, especially with a new law."

Bibelheimer cited an appeals process to which applicants like Ramona have access, in which questions about the fair dispensation of food stamps are raised.

Leno encouraged writing letters to editors, using the Internet, and contacting Assembly members to make sure the intent of this law is followed.

The message is clear. For many people, successfully procuring food stamps will require broad awareness of the passage of AB 1796. In order to feed their children and themselves, recovering recipients will be forced to be extremely vigilant and persistent in the pursuit of the federal food stamp entitlement that is their legal right.

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