Grand jury critical of county social services

Concerns include eligibility processing and over issuances of food stamps

Brian WilkinsonApril 10, 2013 

The 18-member Madera County grand jury released five reports last week with the most critical focusing on the Department of Social Services, pointing out a multitude of problems including the accuracy of food stamp and medical aid eligibility reports, and overpayments of cash grants (CalWorks program) and over issuances of food stamps (CalFRESH program).

The department, with about 300 employees, is responsible for a number of social service programs designed to assist individuals and families in the county in every facet of daily life including child care, health care, transportation and employment assistance. In addition to food stamps (21,000 clients), programs include Medi-Cal (40,500 clients), in-home supportive services (1,600 clients), medical services (2,500 clients), child welfare services (470 clients), adult protective services (135 clients), foster care (210 clients), homeless assistance, adoptions and public guardian programs for vulnerable adults.

The department is responsible for determining eligibility of the recipients of these various programs. The investigation was undertaken after the jury received a complaint from a member of the community, specifically about the Eligibility Department Unit of the department.

The report, released April 4, focused on that unit after being told the unit is not processing "Income Eligibility Verification System" reports according to state and federal regulations, resulting in the over-payments of cash grants and over issuances of food stamps. In some cases the eligibility unit is inappropriately and/or inaccurately processing information such as a person's income, resulting in assistance benefits issued incorrectly.

The grand jury says eligibility verification reports are not being properly reviewed and processed on a timely basis, a problem first identified by the Grand Jury 10 years ago and again in a state a audit report in July 2009.

The Eligibility Unit is made up of about 74 employees consisting of 60 eligibility workers, 11 supervisors and three program managers. The majority of the employees are located at the main office in Madera, with additional satellite offices in Chowchilla, Oakhurst and at Madera Community Hospital. The Oakhurst office serves about 2,300 families on a monthly basis.

Based on a State Department of Social Services quarterly report, the county has an ending balance of cash grant overpayments of $2.8 million for the quarter ending September 2012. Based on a US Department of Agriculture quarterly report, the State Department of Social Services reported a food stamp ending overpayment balance of $1.58 million for the quarter ending September 2012.

A Madera County Board of Supervisors resolutions dated June 2009 and October 2011 authorized the "write off" of those cases from 1994-2001 with outstanding balances deemed uncollectible for a combined total amount of $550,868.

Phil Atkisson, a retired chief information officer for Fresno County now living in Oakhurst, is the 2012-2013 grand jury foreman.

Atkisson said the above overpaid balances have accumulated over the past 10 years, with 80% occurring within the past three years.

Department director addressing issues

The department director is Kelly Woodard, who has been in the position for nearly four years and is well aware of the problems her department faces.

"They (grand jury) have a job to do and I respect that," Woodard said. "There are a lot of reasons for these issues, but we are not going to make excuses. We have been addressing a lot of these issues for months -- We are working on them and we have already turned a lot of these issues around. We are making big strides on where we need to be."

Woodard said her department recently went through a state computer conversion that should assist in ensuring compliance. However the conversion was not without its glitches, some of which contributed to the backlog and the state is aware the department was behind in IEVS processing.

"It is important to understand that the current economic climate has put a lot of pressure on our department due to the large number of people who are seeking social services," Woodard said. "Over the last four years, public assistance caseloads in Madera County have risen 28%. Hundreds of people a day come through our doors and on most days people are lined-up out the doors and down the sidewalk. Our staff has a tough job to do."

Woodard said state and federal regulations are very complex and becoming a skilled Eligibility Worker takes more than a year.

"It is a position that requires continuous learning and the ability to adapt to program and systems changes," Woodard said. "The position is very demanding and staff members must be highly organized and possess strong customer services skills."

Woodard said her department is in need of more space.

"The board of supervisors has been made aware of this need and the county is working on space options," Woodard said.

Woodard said she requested and the board approved the hiring of 16 additional staff which will lower case loads, and assist in addressing the department's workload.

The department is preparing a comprehensive response to the grand jury report for the board of supervisors. Woodard said the response will be complete by the end of May.

Grand jury findings

There are nearly 50 findings in the grand jury report outlining concerns with department staffing, high employee turnover, employee training and out-dated policies. Other findings included:

The organization and staffing of the eligibility unit is inadequate, both in number of staff and organizational structure.

Wages for eligibility workers are non-competitive with neighboring counties, contributing to the exceedingly high turnover rate.

Although several highly-skilled and experienced eligibility workers are able to cope with the caseload of approximately 450 cases per worker, many are unable to perform at this level.

The number and frequency of regulation changes by the state increases the complexity and training requirements for the eligibility workers.

The Collections Unit is a competent and well-organized unit, however it is required to operate with out-dated policies and lack of attention and priority from top management.

"As highlighted in the recent Grand Jury report, the Department of Social Services is currently facing some significant challenges that are being further complicated by an economy that is causing growth in their caseloads," Eric Fleming, county administrative officer. "As the CAO, I'm confident in the ability of Kelly Woodard, the department director and know that she has the skills and experience to address these challenges. My office has been working with her department on a plan to address their facilities issues for several months now."

Fleming said the supervisors recently authorized him to begin work on a master plan of the Road 28 and Avenue 14 County Campus in Madera which is envisioned to include new facilities for the Department of Social Services.

"Based on another recommendation from the grand jury report, I will be meeting with the Kelly to offer my suggestions on how to proceed with the management audit," Fleming said.

The grand jury made seven specific recommendations concerning staffing, necessary space and a management audit.

The other reports released April 4 examined environmental health, Valley State Prison for Women, the county jail and the security guard contract for the county government center in Madera. The jury is working on an additional eight reports that will be released at a later date.

NOTE: All five of the reports can be seen in their entirety at www.madera-county.com/index.php/grand-jury-reports/2012-2013.

The Sierra Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service