The Washington, D.C. electronic benefits program was hacked, taking a still unidentified amount of cash away from low-income families.
D.C. residents who receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program found cash missing from their Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT cards on March 1. The D.C. Department of Human Services, which distributes these benefits, said in a press release that they have identified this issue, and are working to reimburse victims and find the perpetrators.
“We understand how crucial benefits assistance is for our residents and theft of these essential supports is unconscionable,” said Laura Zeilinger, director of DHS.
DHS is still in the process of collecting data about the incident, and chose not to give further comment to Street Sense. If you detect suspicious activity with your DHS-distributed benefits, you should change the PIN number on your EBT card and call 311 to report a crime. You can also call the DHS Office of Program Review, Monitoring, and Investigation or OPRMI at (202) 673-4464, or email them at [email protected]. Lastly, you can fill in the DHS Fraud Allegation Form at dhs.dc.gov/page/fraud.
If DHS does not follow up on your case, you can contact a number of organizations including the Legal Aid Society for the District of Columbia who can guide you through the process.
TANF Recertifications Restarting
TANF is a federal and state-funded welfare program that provides needy families with monthly cash assistance, employment training and child care. The amount of cash a family can receive changes based on the number of people in the household, their monthly income, the number and age of their children and other factors. A family of four with two children below the age of 2 may receive a maximum of $1,266 in benefits per month.
The size of the household can determine how much you receive in benefits. For every child a household has, DHS adds $175 to a household’s monthly income, and if a child is younger than 2-years-old, that amount is increased to $200.
Households can certify for TANF through a private interview and an orientation program with DHS. While TANF has a federal time limit of 60 months per household, D.C. is one of two U.S. territories that will provide this assistance in perpetuity. That being said, TANF receivers need to recertify, or again prove their need for benefits once a year.
In the pandemic, Congress extended the Continuing Appropriations Act, which applied a six-month waiver for anyone who needed to recertify TANF until September 2021. D.C. DHS complies with this amendment, and will restart recertifications on April 1, 2022. TANF receivers should check if they received mail from DHS determining their new recertification date. Those who do not renew TANF before their recertification date may have their benefits terminated.
Assistance with TANF
DHS reactivated TANF for those who had their benefits terminated, for reasons other than being ineligible. This isn’t uncommon — Satcha Robinson, staff attorney at Legal Aid, said in testimony to the Committee of Human Services that multiple residents had their benefits dropped without notice and with no reason provided. In one case, Robinson said Legal Aid only had to call an oversight agency, and DHS reinstated their defendant’s benefits without having to go to court.
There are also obstacles in place — District Direct, where people can apply for benefits, is only partially translated to Spanish or other non-English languages. Applicants who need housing do not necessarily have smartphones to use the app. There’s also a website, but that requires an internet connection.
The only alternative is a 68-pages-long benefits paper application with no non-English translations. Since the launch of the District Direct app, DHS service centers no longer help people fill out the paper application, and may not even accept it.
[Read More: D.C. releases benefits portal without full translation options]
Alexis Christensen, an attorney at Legal Aid, says there are multiple avenues available for people who need help with the certification and recertification process, or need to defend their right to receiving or continuing their benefits.
“Something we don’t talk about a lot, if the process doesn’t work the way that it should, people have appeal rights,” said Christensen. “You don’t need an attorney to go through that process.”
If unable to receive help from DHS, people can file for a fair hearing at the Office of Administrative Hearings, using English, Spanish or Amharic forms. People can also call the OAH Legal Assistance Network or OLAN at 202-301-1646 to get advice or an attorney at said hearings — this network is formed by multiple legal organizations that are not working for DHS or OAH.
Legal Aid’s caseload is at capacity at the moment, but Christensen says OAH should be able to connect you to an attorney if necessary.