Tag Archive for: Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

MLRI class action lawsuit seeks to restore stolen SNAP food benefits (Various outlets)

CommonWealth Magazine, WWLP, and CBS News recently reported on a class action lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute against the Department of Transitional Assistance that would require the state to pay food benefit recipients back aid money stolen through “skimming.” “Skimming” is a technique by which criminals attach a device to a point-of-sale terminal, such as an ATM or a store’s card-swiping machine, to steal the household’s account number and PIN. MLRI attorneys Deborah Harris and Betsy Gwin (pictured above) were quoted in news coverage of the lawsuit.

Below are excerpts of the articles.

CommonWealth Magazine (Nov. 7):

“What should not happen is that somebody fills up their grocery cart at the supermarket, gets to the checkout line and discovers there are no benefits in the account and they can’t feed their family that month,” said Deborah Harris, a Massachusetts Law Reform Institute attorney who filed the suit. “That is not acceptable. Either the federal government or the states have to step up to the plate.” 

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine.

WWLP (Nov. 8):

Plaintiffs allege that DTA declined to restore the stolen and spent amounts because the U.S. Department of Agriculture “has told states that USDA, which in most cases pays the full cost of SNAP benefits, will not cover the restoration costs,” the lawsuit reads. “Low-income families count on their SNAP benefits to put food on the table each month,” Betsy Gwin, a staff attorney at MLRI, said in a statement. “When criminals steal families’ SNAP, our federal and state governments must step up to restore the lost benefits.”

Read more at WWLP.

CBS News (Nov. 18):

The cases in Massachusetts may represent just a fraction of Americans who lose their benefits to theft, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month flagging it as a growing problem. About 41 million Americans currently rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP —the formal name of the food-stamp program — for food assistance. 

Skimming “is an extensive issue that extends across the country,” Gwin added. “The difference we see is the lack of federal protections for EBT users.”

Read more at CBS News.

Interview: SNAP benefit increase is helping those in need. Is it enough? (GBH News)

Patricia Baker (pictured above), a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, spoke with GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath on Oct. 20 about the gaps that federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients still face, despite a recent increase in monthly benefits.

Below is an excerpt from the interview.

Rath: And the cost of living, of course, varies quite a bit between states. And as we know here in Massachusetts, it’s one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Is that taken into consideration at all? And if not, is there a chance it could be?

Baker: Unfortunately, the costs of living around the country are not taken into consideration. With the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, every state applies the same rules for the most part. And not only is it more costly to live in Massachusetts, but the cost of food alone — we’re the second-highest cost of food right now in the nation for lots of reasons, including that we don’t produce as much food in the state and the costs of delivery of that food — all of which contributes to higher food costs for the commonwealth.

Read more of the interview at GBH News.

Advocacy groups urge legislature to revisit no-cost phone calls for prisoners and prison construction moratorium (Various outlets)

A coalition of more than 80 advocacy groups, including Prisoners’ Legal Services and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, called on the Massachusetts House and Senate to return to session and revisit legislation that would make phone calls free for prisoners as well as place a five year moratorium on the construction of new jails and prisons.

Below are excerpts from the news coverage.

The Eagle-Tribune (Oct. 25) and The Salem News (Oct. 31):

Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said offering free phone calls to prisoners is a “no brainer” that was approved with “broad” legislative support.

“It will remove outrageous charges that burden low-income families of people in prison,” she wrote. “It will help children, spouses and parents stay connected with incarcerated loved ones, and it will help people in prison prepare to succeed on release — all at a very low cost to the state.”

Read more from The Eagle-Tribune and The Salem News.

WWLP (Oct. 26):

“Keeping families connected is key to reducing recidivism, making sure transitions back in the community are smoother, and those things right there keep communities safer,” said Mark Martinez from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Read more from WWLP.

With aid drying up, advocates fear wave of evictions (The Boston Globe)

The Boston Globe quoted Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Staff Attorney Andrea Park (pictured above) in an Oct. 12 article examining the impact of waning COVID-era relief funds and legal protections for tenants. New rental assistance requirements and fewer available funds have led to an uptick in eviction filings. Below is an excerpt from the article.

The most drastic change to rent relief is the one Bertelson faced: the requirement tenants receive a Notice To Quit.

Legally, notices are not enough to boot tenants from their homes, said Andrea Park, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Yet most are threaded with strong legalistic language that threatens eviction. As a result, she added, some tenants leave their apartments in fear, rather than staying put and fighting.

Park said the state failed to consider how requiring the notice could trigger other problems, such as the impact on tenants’ credit scores and their ability to secure housing in the future.

“There’s this perception that it’s just a letter,” she added. “But that’s underselling the power of the NTQ.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

How a Massachusetts law meant to help victims is working against them

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Deputy Director of Advocacy Jamie Sabino and Greater Boston Legal Services Senior Attorney Mithra Merryman were interviewed recently by WBUR regarding a law that was intended to protect the privacy and safety of victims of domestic and sexual violence, but has instead protected perpetrators and police. The Massachusetts law requires police to keep all reports and arrests related to sexual and domestic violence secret, something no other state does.

In fact, 16 police departments turned down WBUR’s request for records detailing their actions leading up to domestic murders, all citing the same statute.

It has also harmed victims by making it difficult ⁠— even impossible ⁠— to obtain records they need for custody battles and restraining orders.

Sabino, staff attorney at MLRI, said she was concerned about potential “unintended consequences” even as she helped advise lawmakers on the language in the 2014 bill.

Read more and listen to coverage at WBUR (Aug. 27 and Aug. 29).

Tragedies fuel child welfare bill, pitched as attempt to improve system

Child welfare advocates, including Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Staff Attorney Susan Elsen and Retired Juvenile Court Judge Jay Blitzman, interim director of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, scrutinized portions of an omnibus reform bill that in part seeks to rework the advising structure for the state’s Office of the Child Advocate while granting the office more power to intervene in some court cases — proposed legislative language one former judge said creates legal questions. The bill is pinned to high profile cases of child neglect in Massachusetts.

Some child welfare advocacy groups pushed back on the idea, saying the Office of the Child Advocate needs to have access to a wide range of expertise. Elsen said the office cannot oversee the welfare and safety of children in the state all by itself.

“Even if we agree that the composition should be adjusted so it doesn’t have as many executive branch members so as to ensure that the OCA has independence from the executive branch, the OCA does need an advisory committee to consult with, report to, and be accountable to,” Elsen told lawmakers.

Blitzman said Massachusetts has a “history of reacting to tragic cases with sometimes ineffective policy changes.” Blitzman said he and the legislative committee share the same concerns about improving the child welfare system. But he raised questions in his testimony about “how the bill might or might not achieve its goals.” 

Read more in the June 7 articles at MassLive, CommonWealth, and The Eagle Tribune.

Report says DCF needs to incorporate family input into policies

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute released a report entitled Family Voices: Insights about prevention services from families and youth directly affected by the Massachusetts Child Welfare system, which examines the state’s child welfare system and provides recommendations for improving the system and services provided to families. The report was covered in a CommonWealth Magazine article as well as in a legislative briefing hosted by MLRI and State Representative Adrian Madaro on May 9.

The report looks at the state’s child welfare system through the eyes of the families caught up in it. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 14 parents and youth and met three times with representatives of Family Matters First, a group of over 100 parents with Department of Children and Families (DCF) involvement. For families, DCF is known not as an agency that provides helpful resources but as one that takes children away.

“Families want service and help without DCF involvement,” said report author Susan Elsen, the child welfare advocate at MLRI.

Elsen said the gap between the mission of DCF – to keep children safely at home with their families whenever possible – and how it is perceived by the families it serves shows the need to bring families into the agency’s policy and planning efforts. “We hope to put the voices of people with lived experience out in the public arena with respect to planning services to keep children safely with their families, to really show how useful and profound their insights are into what’s going to make services effective for keeping children safely with their families,” Elsen said. 

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine. Download the full report here.

Report: Post-moratorium, evictions disproportionately filed in communities of color

A new report from the coalition Homes For All Massachusetts, co-authored by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, finds that after the state’s eviction moratorium ended in October 2020, communities of color were hit harder by new eviction filings than white residents.

Between Oct. 18, 2020 and Oct. 30, 2021, 43 percent of all Massachusetts eviction filings occurred in neighborhoods where most residents identify as people of color, even though those neighborhoods comprise just 32 percent of the state’s rental-housing stock, according to an analysis by Eric Robsky Huntley, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Science and Planning.

Andrea Park, an attorney at MLRI, suggested the report could shape the rental-assistance portion of a supplemental budget currently being crafted by the Massachusetts Legislature.

In addition, Park noted, “there are pieces of legislation currently pending … things like giving local control for rent stabilization, for transfer fees, for giving tenants the opportunity to purchase their home.”

Read more at WGBH and The Boston Globe. Download the full report here.

Rising inflation puts squeeze on low-income families

Deborah Harris, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, was quoted in a March 6 Eagle Tribune article that reported on the financial pressures low-income families face due to inflation even while state and federal cash assistance benefits have increased.

Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker and state legislative leaders agreed to increase the monthly benefits for the state’s primary cash assistance program, known as Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, by about 9.1% — which boosted the maximum payment for a household of three to $612 per month. It was the first increase in more than a decade.

But advocates point out that the inflation rate — which climbed to about 7.5% in January — whittles down the net value of the increase to only about 1.6%.

“It’s simply not enough to make up for the lost value,” said Harris. “We hear from families who have to skimp on clothes and other essential items because the value of the assistance they get has eroded.”

Read more in The Eagle Tribune.

“SNAP Gap” progress spurs calls for Benefits Common App

On Feb. 15, the Baker administration announced that MassHealth applicants would be able to use their submitted information to start a SNAP application beginning in July, as reported in a WWLP article (from State House News Service). The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the National Association of Social Workers – MA Chapter have for years been leading a coalition of over 150 organizations advocating for a benefits application process that would allow Massachusetts residents to apply for MassHealth and food assistance at the same time.

MLRI estimated last year that 600,000 MassHealth recipients likely qualify for SNAP benefits but are not receiving the federally funded, state-administered food aid.

While MLRI Senior Policy Advocate Patricia Baker praised the administration’s latest step, she said more work should be done to remove “bureaucratic obstacles” that have been in place “for too long.” “It’s time to finish the job, break down the remaining barriers with a simple, accessible common application for all means-tested benefits available to our lowest income households,” Patricia Baker said.

MLRI and NASW backed legislation filed by Rep. Jay Livingstone of Boston and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett (H 1290 / S 761) that instructs the administration to begin developing a common application for a range of benefits. The Health Care Financing Committee favorably reported the bill in November, and it remains pending before the House Ways and Means Committee. 

Read more in WWLP articles from Feb. 18 and Feb. 15.