Federal Civil Rights Complaint Charges New York City Welfare Agency for Discriminating Against People with Psychiatric Disabilities in Welfare Programs

The Complaint

A federal civil rights complaint filed today charges that New York City’s Human Resources Administration (“HRA”) systematically ignores the needs of people with psychiatric disabilities who need cash assistance to feed themselves and their families and avoid homelessness, and who need Medicaid to obtain medical and mental health care. The complaint, filed with the Office For Civil Rights (“OCR”) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, describes the experiences of current and former welfare applicants and recipients who illustrate common, systemic problems experienced by many others, and describes HRA policies and practices that have a discriminatory effect on individuals with psychiatric disabilities. The complaint was filed under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibit welfare agencies from operating public assistance programs in a manner that has a discriminatory effect against individuals with psychiatric disabilities. The Welfare Law Center, Urban Justice Center, MFY Legal Services and Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A filed the complaint.

The Requirements of the Disability Rights Laws

The ADA and Section 504 require HRA to operate its public benefits programs in a manner that doesn’t screen out people with psychiatric disabilities; to provide equal and meaningful access to its public benefit programs to people with psychiatric disabilities; and to provide reasonable modifications to policies and practices when necessary to provide equal access to these programs to people with psychiatric disabilities and avoid discrimination. In January 2001, the Office for Civil Rights issued Policy Guidance on the application of the ADA and Section 504 to TANF programs.

The New York City Human Resources Administration Systematically Violates The Laws Prohibiting Discrimination Against People with Disabilities

Up to one-third of individuals in public assistance programs across the country have psychiatric disabilities such as depression, anxiety disorders, post traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. Nevertheless, HRA does not screen applicants and recipients for possible psychiatric disabilities that often affect the ability to work. When an applicant or recipient discloses a possible psychiatric disability, HRA fails to conduct an adequate assessment of the disability or to accommodate the disability in making an assignment to a work activity. HRA also fails to review decisions to reduce or discontinue benefits to see whether an individual was unable to comply with a program requirement as the result of a psychiatric disability that should have been accommodated. The application process for welfare benefits in New York City is so complex and unwieldy that many people without psychiatric disabilities are unable to complete it. Yet, HRA does not help people with disabilities who need assistance filling out forms and gathering necessary documents. HRA does not accommodate persons with psychiatric disabilities who cannot travel to Job Centers or tolerate long waits, or who miss appointments as a result of their psychiatric disabilities. As a result of these practices, many individuals with psychiatric disabilities who need and are entitled to public assistance benefits cannot obtain them.

HS Systems, the private company under contract with HRA to conduct disability assessments, frequently finds individuals with severe psychiatric disabilities, including active psychosis and hallucinations, employable. In fact, many of the individuals with severe psychiatric disabilities that HS Systems determines able to work are found to qualify for Supplemental Security Income, a federal benefits program for people who are permanently disabled. Sometimes they qualify based on the same medical evidence HS Systems used to find the person employable.

Quotations From Advocates Filing the Complaint

“Just as a flight of stairs in a welfare center is a barrier for a wheelchair user, HRA’s complicated application process, inflexible program rules and other practices are a barrier to accessing services for people with mental health problems,” said Cary LaCheen, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Welfare Law Center. “It’s time for HRA to build ramps for people with psychiatric disabilities.”

“These are not minor, bureaucratic problems,” said Bill Lienhard, a Staff Attorney in the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center. “Because of HRA’s systemic failure to give people with psychiatric disabilities equal access to benefits, some of New York’s neediest citizens are unnecessarily losing their homes and incomes and winding up in psychiatric wards or on the street. We hope this Complaint will prompt full-scale reform of HRA’s policies and practices.”