Welfare Impact Advocacy


The Welfare Law Unit has long engaged in impact litigation to address systemic wrongs by the welfare agency, addressing issues such as immigrant eligibility, Food Stamp application rights, rights of individuals with limited English proficiency, and the Transitional Aid for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC ) work requirement. Some of this work is done in collaboration with colleagues in other legal services programs.

Litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act:

GBLS brought a federal civil rights class action under the Americans with Disabilities Act against the state welfare department, the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), for disability discrimination. Filed in 2007 on behalf of three individuals with disabilities, the case grew out of the experiences of individual clients who came to the Welfare Law Unit. The parties reached a comprehensive settlement that was approved by the court in August 2013. Harper v. Department of Transitional Assistance made two core claims:

  • First, it challenged many of the ways in which DTA administers its programs because these practices have the effect of depriving eligible individuals with disabilities and their families of the benefits the agency is obligated to provide;
  • Second, it challenged DTA’s failure to have systems, policies, and procedures in place to ensure individuals with disabilities get the reasonable accommodations they need to access DTA’s benefits and services. 
The landmark settlement agreement realizes the goal of the case, namely to improve access for individuals with disabilities through systemic change. Under the agreement, DTA must make a number of changes, including:  
  • Routine screening to ask clients about disabilities and whether they need accommodations from DTA;
  • Improved systems for handling accommodation requests;
  • Creating the capacity to preserve information about approved accommodations in DTA’s computer system so that it is accessible to all DTA staff;
  • Appointing specialist staff in each office to help clients and DTA staff address disability-related barriers to accessing DTA benefits;
  • Making written materials more accessible and easier to read;
  • Increasing access to auxiliary aids;  
  • Appointing a high-level Director of Disability Access; and
  • Pilot and evaluate measures designed to prevent clients with disabilities from losing TAFDC because of their disabilities.
Notably, many of the changes, such as improving DTA’s written materials, will benefit all clients, not just those with disabilities.
As of December 2014, DTA has already revised written policies, issued guidance to local offices, revised notices, adopted and trained staff on guidelines to make notices and forms more readable, reprogrammed its computer system to flag cases with accommodations, appointed a senior-level manager in charge of disability access, and begun selecting staff for the new specialist positions. As the settlement requires many significant changes, DTA has until February 2015 to implement remaining key aspects of the settlement. After that time, DTA will conduct statewide training for all staff. GBLS attorneys continue to work with DTA on implementation, and provide feedback to DTA as implementation progresses.
Once key components of the settlement agreement are implemented, DTA is required to give GBLS ongoing data so that it can monitor compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement. GBLS will also monitor compliance by continuing to represent individuals with disabilities who have problems accessing DTA benefits due to disability.   Finally, GBLS is doing outreach regarding the settlement at community organizations and provider groups that serve our clients. The goal of the outreach is to provide information about the terms of the settlement and upcoming changes; educate about the right to accommodation and encourage providers to do more accommodation requests themselves; and encourage providers to refer cases to GBLS when appropriate to help us obtain information from a range of sources in order to monitor how the implementation is impacting clients.   For more information about the settlement agreement, please see below, or contact Sarah Levy at 617-603-1619 or slevy@gbls.org or Lizbeth Ginsburg at 617-603-1624 or lginsburg@gbls.org.  

Harper Settlement Agreement  (110 kb pdf)
Harper Appendices (126 kb pdf)
Harper Settlement Notice (48 kb pdf)
Harper Summary of Settlement Notice (26 kb pdf)
Harper Complaint (186 kb pdf)

Note: These Files are in "pdf" format - you will need a free Adobe Acrobat Reader. Download the Acrobat Reader here if you don't have it already on your computer.

State and Federal Policy Advocacy

The Welfare Law Unit advocates proactively for systemic improvements and defensively against proposed harmful changes on behalf of clients affected by the welfare system.  Our advocacy includes development and implementation of strategies with the following goals:

Enforce rights and improve access for clients with limited English proficiency (LEP)

The Unit engaged in extensive work on this issue with the welfare agency and, more recently, with other state agencies.  For example:

  • A Unit attorney worked closely with the Department of Revenue (DOR), which is responsible for Child Support Enforcement services, to develop its Language Access Plan.
  • Unit advocates regularly submit comments on proposed federal and state welfare and Food Stamp regulations and directives related to LEP issues.
  • Unit advocates brought a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR) regarding violations of the rights of LEP clients by the welfare agency.  Unit advocates have pursued a number of further actions with OCR when the welfare agency violated the resulting agreement, including successfully seeking relief for clients where the violations resulted in lost benefits.

Enforce rights and improve access for eligible immigrantsto benefits and services provided by the welfare agency and the agency that administers subsidized child care for the state (EEC)

  For example:

  • A Unit attorney researched special eligibility rules for non-citizen survivors of domestic violence and drafted guidance, which the welfare agency incorporated into a formal policy memorandum for its staff.
  • A Unit attorney prepared a chart on immigrant status and child care eligibility for EEC, which EEC distributed to all agencies that administer child care benefits.
  • A Unit attorney organized a statewide conference on legal issues affecting immigrant children, sponsored by the Children’s Law Support Project. 
  • Unit advocates regularly submit comments on proposed federal and state welfare and Food Stamp regulations and directives related to immigrant eligibility issues.

Enforce protections for domestic violence survivors and those currently dealing with domestic violence.

For example:

  • Unit advocates worked on adoption of domestic violence waivers in connection with the implementation of welfare reform and advocated for the need for domestic violence specialists in the welfare agency.
  • A Unit attorney was a key organizer in statewide hearings held by the Governor’s Commission on Domestic Violence on the issue of domestic violence and economic stability.  She also co-authored a report synthesizing the results of the hearings and making policy recommendations.

Preserve access to the welfare safety net by trying to stop regulatory and other administrative changes that would harm our clients.

For example:

  • Unit advocates have responded to proposed harmful changes by submitting comments based on our extensive experience representing clients who would be impacted.

Legislative Advocacy

  • The Unit staffs the Family Economic Initiative in ongoing affirmative and defensive legislative efforts affecting clients in need of welfare, working closely with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and a statewide coalition of individuals and organizations that recognize the Commonwealth’s obligation to preserve access to the welfare safety net.
  • The Unit successfully led post-welfare reform efforts to increase statutory protection of benefits for parents with barriers to employment, to include education and training as an allowable welfare work activity, to defeat attempts to enact legislation that would deny financial assistance to children with disabled parents, and preserve funding for basic benefits.