Court of Appeals Ruling Could Ease Access to Safety Net Benefits in DC
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On July 19, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued an important decision regarding the District of Columbia Department of Human Services’ (DHS) administration of the Program on Work, Empowerment, and Responsibility (POWER). Black v. District of Columbia Department of Human Services, No. 17-AA-5. (POWER is a public assistance program providing cash assistance to certain low- (and no-) income District residents unable to access other public benefit programs.) The POWER program is expressly intended, among other things, to provide benefits to parents who have to stay home to take care of their children.

This case involves DC resident Donna Black. Unfortunately, DHS failed to fulfill the legal requirement to screen Ms. Black for POWER eligibility in February 2014. Had it done so, it would have found her eligible for these benefits because she needed to stay home to care for her daughter who has learning and other disabilities. However, the District did not screen Ms. Black until the summer of 2015 (when she requested a screening) and did not commence benefit payments until October 2015.

After Ms. Black tried to represent herself before an Administrative Law Judge who declined to order the District to award POWER benefits, Legal Aid went to the District’s highest court – the District of Columbia Court of Appeals – to try to get Ms. Black her missing benefits, which total over $10,000. In the decision issued July 19, the Court agreed with Legal Aid’s arguments that the District should have screened Ms. Black in February 2014 and ordered the District’s Department of Human Services to conduct a retroactive screening which should result in Ms. Black obtaining these much-needed retroactive benefits.

This decision will help many District residents beyond Ms. Black by establishing in binding precedent that DHS is required by law to screen for POWER eligibility and, when it fails to do so, it can be ordered to do so retroactively. Thus, this ruling removes unnecessary and improper barriers to the District’s poorest residents obtaining vital safety net benefits they can use to pay for basic necessities including food, shelter, clothing, and medicine.

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