Phone system thwarts food stamp recipients

How we got the story

When one local resident called to describe his frustration with the call-in system for food stamp recipients, reporter Craig Schneider decided to see if problems were widespread. Inquires on Twitter and Facebook elicited several similar complaints. Schneider contacted Atlanta Legal Aid, which connected him with Georgetown professor David Super, who has documented longstanding problems in the state’s system. The state Department of Human Services, which administers food stamps through its Division of Children and Family Services, also provided records at the AJC’s request.

For more than a year, Georgians who need food stamps have battled a flawed call-in system that often thwarts their attempts to apply for or renew benefits, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Callers can be on hold for hours, and each month hundreds of thousands of calls go unanswered, according to documents obtained by the AJC. That can be more than an annoyance: Recipients are required to provide information to the state at specified intervals and whenever their financial status changes significantly. If they can’t get through to provide that information or ask questions about what’s required, their benefits may be cancelled.

The call-in center is integral to the state’s food stamp operation, and its problems have “severely undermined” the entire system, said David Super, a Georgetown law professor who has studied the Georgia food stamp program for a decade.

“I think it’s working very badly,” Super said. “It is resulting in people who are still eligible, and in need of assistance, being dropped from the system.”

State officials acknowledged long wait times but said phone issues shouldn’t prevent people from getting services.

“I would believe that people would come into the office if they can’t get through,” said Sharon Hill, director of the Division of Family and Children Services, which administers food stamps in Georgia.

But recipients who have gone to DFCS offices say that, instead of being able to deal with a live worker, they have been directed to a bank of phones and told to phone the call-in line.

La Shanda Brown, the DFCS strategic operations planner who helps manage the line, described the problems as “hiccups along the way.”

That description bothered Super. “It’s easy to call it a hiccup, if you’re not talking about your family’s ability to eat,” he said.

Lisa Eckman separated from her husband earlier this year, leaving her to care for her children with the few hundred dollars a month she makes as a photographer. She began receiving $700 a month in food stamps.

When she tried to renew her benefits in August, the agency told her it needed more documentation on her income. When she tried to get clarification over the phone, she was unable to get through despite repeatedly holding for up to two hours, she said.

“I feel forgotten,” Eckman said. “I feel like I’ve fallen through the cracks of the system.”

In September, Eckman’s benefits were cut off. She has been getting food through a North Fulton food bank.

DFCS spokeswoman Ashley Fielding said the agency wants to do right by its clients. “If there’s ever a case where someone’s food stamp case has been closed wrongly, DFCS will review it and correct it,” she said.

The federal food stamp program, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, serves about 1.9 million Georgians. That number has more than doubled since the economy slid into recession in 2007.

The state launched the call-in system in August, 2012. With budgets shrinking, the state said it could no longer assign each family a caseworker.

People initially apply for food stamps online or at a local DFCS office. After that, they are supposed to use the phone system to report changes in their finances or ask questions regarding the twice-yearly renewal process. Once a year, they must undergo a phone interview. Some complain that the call from DFCS does not come at the appointed time, and when they try to call the agency, they can’t get through.

The phone system also handles inquiries about Medicaid, child care benefits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and energy assistance. It has been phased in region-by-region across the state. Fulton and DeKalb counties were the first.

At the AJC’s request, the state provided two sets of numbers documenting the call center’s performance. They cover different types of calls and different time periods.

One, restricted to calls placed by recipients seeking a change in their benefits, shows that for the 12 months that ended in June, 41 percent of calls went unanswered. The other, including a wider array of calls and covering the past three months, shows that 65 percent of calls got no answer.

“The implementation has been a mess,” said Nancy Rhinehart, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid, who said she is representing an increasing number of people who feel the system has wrongly cancelled their benefits.

Even before the new call-in process rolled out, some workers were complaining that they were overwhelmed and the system was broken. In July, 2012, several Fulton County DFCS employees wrote federal officials that case managers were falsifying documents to justify wrongly withholding benefits.

“Case managers are falsely documenting that they are calling the customers, getting no answer from the customer, which then justifies them denying the (food stamp) application,” the workers wrote anonymously.

In response, state officials went to Fulton and interviewed 27 workers and supervisors. There were “no reports of falsification or intentional wrongdoing,” the state reported back to the feds.

Super calls the state probe superficial.

In the next few weeks, Cobb, Gwinnett, Rockdale, Henry and Clayton are expected to implement the call-in system. DFCS will add 100 temporary workers to help the 600 now handling calls, Hill said. Over time, it plans to add a more user-friendly phone menu and let callers get automated answers to certain inquiries.

Rhinehart doesn’t believe 100 temp workers will fix the system. “There are so many holes in the process,” she said.

Roberta Lewis, who lives in the Valdosta area, said she longs for the days when she could simply talk to her own caseworker, rather than calling in to a phone line. She has liver disease and lives with her 22-year-old son who is developmentally disabled.

Calling every day to get some explanation of her benefits, Lewis said she has put the phone on speaker mode and waited as long as three hours. Twice a worker picked up, and sent her back to the beginning of the process.

“I’m about to cry,” said Lewis, 53. “I need a person to talk to. … I need help.”

Lewis said she tried going to the local DFCS office, only to be told there were no caseworkers available.

“They told me to call the number,” she said.

As for Lisa Eckman, she and her kids are living in an extended stay motel in Roswell. On Wednesday, their refrigerator held only a carton of eggs and a container of orange juice. The freezer was empty. She had some canned goods from the food pantry. The kids ate Hot Pockets for dinner.

Eckman, who’s been job hunting, thought she had an offer, but it fell through.

“My daughter’s been trying to sell her artwork because she wants to help,” Eckman said. “I don’t know what to do. I just want a job. I just want to get by like everybody else seems to do.”

The kids spotted a gray kitten in the motel parking lot, hungry and dirty, and they took him in.

She’s told them they can’t keep it.