Families still losing benefits as DFCS fixes phone line

1:00 AM, Jan 3, 2014   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- The emails and phone calls keep coming. From all over metro Atlanta, the frustration is the same.

"It tells me they have a high call volume then it hangs up," said one woman forced to drive down to the Gwinnett DFCS office for answers.

Even more frustrating, many folks report waiting on hold for more than an hour, only to be disconnected. Without that phone call, many can't renew their benefits.

FULL COVERAGE | Continuing coverage of holding the powerful accountable and fixing DFCS

"My six year old daughter came up with two dollars and said willt his buy food for us tomorrow? And I cried for at least 20 minutes," said Anne Prather.

After more than a month of phone calls and visits to the DFCS office, Prather thought her problem was fixed. But on Thursday, her debit card balance was $386, more than $600 shy of what she normally receives each month to feed her family of eight.  Even worse she says, she has no idea why.

"The state knows about this problem and DFCS knows about the problem and I don't think there's a lack of will, they want to help everyone. But the way the system has become structured I think its very difficult to catch up on the backlog created," said Nancy Rhinehart, Staff Attorney with Atlanta Legal and Aid Society, Inc.

DFCS says clients having problems can contact Constituent Services at 404-651-6316 or email them at CustomerService@dhr.state.ga.us. 

It has assigned more workers to man the phone, with 550 people now fielding calls, which should offer some relief.  In November, 789,420 calls were made.  According to the agency's own report, 317,759 went un-answered.

Through an open records request, Rhinehart learned more than half of the calls that came into the state's hotline in the past six months, were never answered. The longest wait time according to their records, nearly two hours.

"We know from their most recent numbers that 40% of their applications are not being processed on time," said Rhinehart.

She says that statistic refers solely to new applicants.  It doesn't even count those trying to renew their benefits.

Rhinehart says the state is breaking the law, failing to meet federal regulations. 

11Alive contacted the USDA, which funds the program. A spokesperson told us its working to "provide guidance" to the state, but failed to say anything about actual steps being taken to fix the problem.

Rhinehart is beginning to wonder if its going to take a lawsuit to get the state to hire enough people to correctly administer the program.

"We've given DFCS time to fix these problems and we just aren't hearing anything from the state that's a proposed solution," she said.

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