DFCS battles food stamp processing backlog for months without success

ATLANTA -- There are families throughout Georgia that have no idea what they'll eat tomorrow. Not just because they're poor, but because the state program set up to help them isn't working and hasn't for months.

The food pantry and Ball Ground United Methodist Church is bare, decimated by families who have tried now for three months to get DFCS to renew their food stamp benefits.

Families say the forms they need don't come, or come late. Case workers who are supposed to call to complete the necessary phone interviews, don't keep the appointments and the call center designed to handle it all, is overwhelmed by the volume of people falling through the cracks.

"I'll call them, I stay on hold, I get hung up on. I've tried. So many times I've tried," said April Jones who has no idea what to try next.

Erick Westmoreland says he gave up and went down to his county office. He sat there for nearly 12 hours.

"I was the very last one to walk out, they were turning out lights and locking doors," he said.

He still doesn't have food stamp benefits.

"It is a priority from the top of our organization, we meet about it almost daily, and the Commissioner is involved in a weekly meeting to get updates," said DFCS Communications Director Susan Boatwright.

But how can you talk about something every day, yet not fix the problem for months?

According to hundreds of pages of emails and data we obtained as part of an open records request, the problems has been brewing for months.

The state cites a technical glitch in October that delayed a mailing intended to remind families it was time to renew. As a result, up to 66,000 families may have been unexpectedly dropped from their benefits and forced to reapply.

But the mailing snafu seems more like the final straw, not the root problem. Even in July, three months before the mailing issue, people were waiting on hold for up to two hours. The longest wait time jumped to three hours in September. Even for all that waiting, more than 60 percent of the calls were never answered.

While DFCS repeatedly told us clients could still go into their county office for help, every time we visited locations in Gwinnett, Clayton and Cobb, employees were simply directing clients back to the centralized phone system.

Boatwright says it's a misunderstanding the division is working to fix. "The intention was not to ever remove the ability to go to the county office to apply for benefits; however, I think in implementing a new program we may have some mixed messages that we are in the process of clearing up right now," she said.

11Alive News has learned it's not just the phone line that's jammed. The online form families must fill out, wasn't designed to automatically link up with the old computer system that actually determines eligibility. So someone has to manually enter every application again. At one point, 43,000 families were stuck in that backlog. An email to DFCS Director Sharon Hill called the situation "unreal."

DFCS admits the phone system wasn't originally designed to handle the current call volume. That's why many callers are disconnected without warning, and some can't even get in cue.

Boatwright says DFCS is upgrading the phone system to handle more callers. It's hiring 300 more workers in the next six months to answer those calls and it will begin to post reminders and statements online, so they will never again get lost in the mail.

Boatwright says another big change will be the new self-serve options, that will help clients get the information they need without talking with a caseworker.

"In our partner agency, Child Support, they have this feature, and this feature answers a million or so calls per month that don't have to go to an agent," Boatwright added.

As these changes are implemented, the division has spent nearly $400,000 in the past two months on overtime to deal with the backlog. But a January report shows 44 percent of its calls still went unanswered.

Kathy Day says she's quickly running out of resources to help families and fears some families will run out of faith.

"I'm praying, I'm hoping. That's all I can do," said Jones.


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