Legal Aid staff under the leadership of the Public Benefits Task Force has been conducting community education visits to local Departments of Social Services periodically since March. Three local DSS offices have been visited to date: Reisterstown in Baltimore County, St. Mary’s County and Frederick County. The education, or “outreach,” consists of staff positioning themselves in front of the offices and welcoming those heading to DSS with brochures about food stamps, Medical Assistance and DSS Fair Hearing rights. Coffee is served as well. “We don’t solicit potential clients, nor do we direct them to Legal Aid,” said task force chair Carol Ahlum. “We simply say, ‘Here’s some information about your rights at Social Services. We’re from Legal Aid.’ If they come back and ask a question about a particular problem, we answer it.”
Outreach to welfare offices, once a staple of early legal services programs, fell into disfavor because of program budget cuts and the belief that advocates had little need to drum up more business. Ironically, government budget cuts drove the task force bacl to the streets. “The state hiring freeze has left many DSS offices understaffed in the income maintenance realm,” explained Baltimore County staff attorney Sandra Brushart. “You get used to a certain amount of DSS sloppiness. But I’ve never seen it this bad.” The task force picked the Reisterstown office as the first stop on the outreach tour because of its poor performance. Prior to visiting the office, Legal Aid staff met with the Baltimore County DSS director and other officials and was invited to speak with the staff at Reisterstown. The reception from each was positive and DSS customers responded enthusiastically to the presence of Brushart, Ahlum and Assistant Director of Advocacy Peter Sabonis, and staff attorney Francine Hahn of the Homeless Persons Representation Project on the day of the outreach. Meeting with DSS officials led to further invitations to address other county workers and human service contractors.
Ahlum and Sabonis joined Southern Maryland office (Hughesville) chief attorney Seri Wilpone and paralegal Pauline Poirier to greet customers at the DSS office in Leonardtown. They also had a chance to speak to Rebecca Bridgett, director of the Charles County DSS office, who had a meeting at the St. Mary’s DSS office. “It’s always helpful to know what we’re supposed to be doing,” Bridgett said, as she cheerfully gathered the brochures and headed inside.
In Frederick, DSS Director Diane Gordy came out and was served coffee by Ahlum, Sabonis, and paralegals Kay Grant and Abe Escovedo of the Midwestern Maryland office. Ahlum took the opportunity to alert Gordy to language accessibility problems relative to Purchase of Care notices.
Outreach will continue. “We’d like to hit every local office, eventually,” Sabonis said. “It helps on so many levels. The community knows we’re here to help–and the workers take notice too. It’s amazing how many folks come out of DSS while we’re there and report that the staff was far more polite and accommodating than on prior visits.”
In Harford County, staff attorney Sarah Bowes and paralegal Lynda Baldwin of the Northeastern Maryland office (Bel Air) were invited to speak directly to Temporary Cash Assistance applicants after Baldwin told the county of their outreach plans. Legal Aid is now a regular participant in the TCA orientation process, providing information to customers and DSS staff.