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Women Fight California Over Domestic Abuse

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - California's Department of Social Services is denying aid to victims of domestic abuse, making it more difficult for them to escape from their abusers, four women claim in court.

In their Jan. 8 complaint in Alameda County Court, the women claim the state has "unlawfully narrowed state law" to limit eligibility for aid from the state's CalWORKS program.

CalWORKS is part of the federal welfare program Temporary Aid to Needy Families, which provides temporary cash assistance to very low-income families with minor children.

Antionette Dozier, the petitioners' attorney, said in a telephone interview that in the past, California has provided waivers for program rules that would make it more difficult for domestic abuse victims to escape their abusers.

But the state's recent practices are more limiting, she said.

"The state has essentially rewritten that law and eliminated flexibility for certain groups of victims, expressly disabled survivors or their children," Dozier said.

According to the petition for writ of mandate, public assistance is often a determining factor of a woman's ability to leave an abusive partner.

"Deciding whether or not to leave an abusive partner often forces survivors to decide whether to subject their children to a life with no place to go, few resources and virtually nonexistent economic security," the petition states.

"The abusive relationship may involve the abuser limiting the survivor's access to economic resources and employment opportunities. Many leave in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and must entirely rebuild their lives and support networks."

The petition cites the Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule, which denies aid to children conceived and born while their parents were receiving cash aid.

One petitioner claims that when she requested a waiver of this rule, Will Lightbourne, the Department of Social Services' director, denied her request on the grounds that she was ineligible for CalWORKS aid without determining whether she was "placed at further risk or unfairly penalized."

A waiver would have provided her a higher grant from the program and would have given her and her four children the financial stability to escape her domestic partner, whose abuse led her to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.

Another petitioner says that her husband repeatedly raped, beat and choked her, which led her to become depressed and suicidal.

She claims that she requested a waiver for the MFG rule, but her request was denied because her receipt of Supplemental Security Income made her ineligible for the work-to-welfare program.

The other two petitioners said they were denied waivers due to their immigration status.

Dozier said that since domestic abuse is typically a crime without witnesses, survivors must self-certify and provide affidavits testifying to their abuse in order to receive necessary waivers.

She said that most reports and studies show that 50 percent of women on welfare are of domestic abuse.

"This is impacting a huge number of women," Dozier said.

The Department of Social Services sent an " all county letter " in August 2014 to all 58 of the state's county welfare departments, providing directions on domestic abuse protocols and allowable program waivers for CalWORKS applicants and recipients.

The letter states that waivers are not granted based on whether a program rule "is detrimental to or unfairly penalizes the applicant, recipient, or his/her family," but rather on whether the circumstances are determined to "temporarily prevent or significantly impair his or her ability to be regularly employed or participate in work-to-welfare activities."

According to the letter, undocumented or "ineligible" adults will not be granted temporary domestic abuse waivers. It provides examples of an "ineligible" adult as a Supplemental Security Income recipient or a "non-needy caregiver relative."

The petitioners seek a writ of mandate and injunctive and declaratory relief, "to stop CDSS and Director Lightbourne from unlawfully misinterpreting the laws in place that would allow petitioners and others like them to receive the assistance necessary to survive outside of abusive situations."

They are represented by Dozier, with the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles.

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