'I have... no more answers for my children when they are hungry'

NC FAST might mean going without food, but that's probably not what the coiners of the acronym intended.

North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology, which is being implemented across all 100 counties of North Carolina, is designed to integrate various social services, including food stamps, Medicaid and WorkFirst, creating a kind of "one-stop shop" for clients seeking assistance. The Forsyth County Department of Social Services calls it a "no wrong door" approach.

Beginning in early July complaints began to crop up in Forsyth County about food stamp benefits being held up for current clients applying for reactivation. A number of clients said their benefits had been delayed for months on end, and food pantries and agencies that provide free meals reported an increase in demand that was partially attributable to disruption in food stamp benefits. Those complaints were a reprise of similar concerns expressed in neighboring Guilford County where the program was piloted.

In mid-July Forsyth County Social Services Director Joe Raymond told YES! Weekly that it was "fair to say that all of our staff are trying to learn how to use the new system and there are delays." He added, "I'm unaware any any macro-statistical thing going on here. I'm unaware that any technology glitch is throwing people out of the system."

Since then, people have continued to report ongoing disruption in food-stamp benefits as food pantries plea for donations to address summertime spikes in demand. He also said that a report about staff temporarily closing the office because of an "uproar" was "categorically inaccurate."

Nicole Main, a YES! Weekly reader, wrote in an e-mail yesterday:
My neighbor lost her job in June, she signed up on benefits here in Forsyth County. They told her she was eligible for emergency benefits because of small children in the home. She was supposed to receive those around the 24th of June. Since then, she hasn't gotten any benefits, even the emergency ones. She calls the DSS on a daily basis, her social worker has never returned a call, even though they state their policy is to give you a call within 72 hours. She has left messages for supervisors, and the 72-hour policy doesn't seem to apply to them either. She has went to the food banks, and they limit your visits. With four young kids and no income, and soon, nowhere to turn for food, they are going to be facing some hungry nights.
Main said she drove her neighbor to the Forsyth County Department of Social Services in Winston-Salem, and they encountered a long line of people questioning why their benefits cards had zeroed out.
One lady at the counter said she wanted to talk to someone immediately because she had been waiting months for her benefits. "I have went to every church and food bank possible. I have sold or pawned everything I have ever owned, even my children's things, just to put a bite on the table for them. I have nothing left, nowhere to go, and no more answers for my children when they are hungry. I have been waiting since May. How much longer should I have to wait? I want some answers because I have no more answers to help my kids."
I have a call in to Raymond, and hope to hear back from him this week. Nancy Young, a member of the Forsyth County Board of Social Services said the board is aware of the problem, which she said arose when the local agency started downloading the Medicaid pilot. NC Rep. Evelyn Terry, who is also a member of the social services board, said the problems became apparent in late July.

"That's really when the red flag went up, when it was apparent something had broken down," she said.

Some of the problems might be occurring because of requirements that clients submit complete information to qualify benefits under the new system. Terry said the local department of social service understaffed "to be able to address it adequately and they must check and do due diligence. A person has to bring in the forms that says they've been looking for work and their status hasn't changed, so that the system goes to the next level and doesn't throw up a red flag. At the end of the day that still doesn't feed a hungry child."

Terry said she's struggling to understand why the breakdown has occurred during the conversion to the new system, which was placed under contract in 2008 during the administration of Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.

"People do not need to have to stand in long lines and wait to receive the benefits to which they are eligible to receive," Terry said. "How do you connect that? You've got to have a nexus for the system at the state to connect with the system at the local level. This apparently is not or has not happened. Why? I have absolutely no idea. You've got to have writers of software and users of technology communicating effectively with workers so that the end game turns out to provide the needed services. And I just believe there's a breakdown somewhere; I don't know where it is. I wouldn't dare speculate. We have been getting updated continuously from Joe Raymond regarding some of the issues."

Disruption in food stamp benefits are not limited to Forsyth County, and have also been reported in Charlotte, RaleighGreensboroWilmington, Fayetteville, Burlington, Granville County, and Lincoln County.

Young said Raymond and other county social services directors "are in Raleigh meeting with NC FAST trying to figure out what the issues are and what can be done to rectify them. Last time I spoke with him they talked about a plan to have the issues rectified by next week."

Young added, "We've got new cases coming in. We've got a backlog of issues with all kinds of technical stuff. People are aware of it, and they are working diligently to fix the problem."

NC Sen. Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth) said she has sought answers from the NC Department of Health and Human Services about why the disruptions to services continue.

"They're having some problems with the systems connecting," she said. "I've heard from a lot of people whose families were suffering because families weren't able to get [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits."

Parmon suggested that the state-mandated program revert to the old process until the kinks can be worked out through a limited pilot of NC FAST.

"It appears that there is not an urgency to put something in place until they've got it working properly," she said.

I have been attempting to reach Ricky Diaz, public affairs director for the NC Department of Health and Human Services, since yesterday morning. I hope to hear from him soon.

Main said she fears that the next stop for many people whose food benefits have been delayed will be a homeless shelter.

"The DSS is not doing the best they can to make this program work, they are doing the very opposite by hiding and not telling people the truth. They have 72 hours to return a phone call and since July 24, [my neighbor] has not received one call back. The operator even called her social worker on a direct inside line and gave her my neighbor's information directly, and still nothing fixed."

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