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Calif. Ordered To Offer Child Care To Welfare Clients in Training Programs

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In a case that could help thousands of poor parents seeking to acquire skills to help them into jobs and off the welfare rolls, a federal judge has ruled that California must provide child-care assistance to welfare clients enrolled in state-approved education and training activities.

The Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program enacted as part of the federal welfare-reform law in 1988 required states to set up education and training programs--and offer such support services as child care--to help move welfare clients toward self-sufficiency.

The California case, Miller v. Carlson, was brought by recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children who could not get child-care aid either because they were not allowed into Greater Avenues for Independence--the state gobs program--or because they were dropped from the program as a result of budget cuts.

The plaintiffs, who sued both the California Department of Social Services and the federal Department of Health and Human Services, charged that the lack of access to child care hindered them from pursuing other education and training activities approved by the state.

In her Dec. 31 ruling, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong ruled that guaranteeing child-care aid to only those A.F.D.C. recipients participating in education and training activities under GAIN violates the intent of the federal welfare law, the Family Support Act.

State officials said last week that they plan to appeal the decision.

The ruling is the first to establish that federal law guarantees child care for welfare clients in state-approved education and training programs.

While some aspects of the case are unique to California, the issue is likely to pose a growing challenge to states as both welfare rolls and the demand to participate in JOBS programs increase.

"All over the country, there are people who have wanted to participate in education activities and have been denied access to child care because they couldn't get into state JOBS programs," said Mark Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer for the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy. "What this decision says is that, if somebody is engaged in an appropriate educational activity, you cannot deny child care to them simply because there is no room in the state jobs program."

New H.H.S. Stance

The California ruling declared invalid an H.H.S. regulation that stipulated that states were obligated-and would receive federal matching funds--only to provide child care "necessary to permit an A.F.D.C. eligible family member to... [participate] in an approved education and training activity under JOBS."

In parts of a state not covered by jobs, the federal rules left it to state officials to decide whether to approve child care for those pursuing training.

Supporting the argument that the federal regulation ran counter to Congressional intent, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction in June. The order required the state to continue child-care aid to A.F.D.c. clients who were dropped from GAIN due to program reductions but continued to "satisfactorily" pursue approved education and training activities.

Following the injunction, H.H.S. issued a new directive requiring states to put in place a plan for considering, "on a case-by-case basis," whether to approve child care for people in education and training activities outside the JOBS program.

The Aug. 19 "action transmittal" left it to states to set the criteria, but allowed that "financial considerations" could be a factor. "To require a state to approve education and training activities without regard to fiscal restraints would impose a significant burden on a state and would limit the state's approval discretion," the transmittal said.

Cost Argument Challenged

Lawyers involved in the California case acknowledged that it leaves open the question of what constitutes approved training activities and how fiscal constraints figure into the equation.

Tanya Broder, a staff lawyer for the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County, one of the groups representing the plaintiffs, said the number of welfare parents affected by the ruling could range in the thousands, and California officials estimate that it could cost the state from $14 million to $40 million.

While the August action transmittal clarified that H.H.S. "will provide federal financial participation to states willing to provide child-care assistance for people who could not get into the JOBS program," Ms. Broder said, the recent ruling ensures that the agency will not "change its policy back any day."

The ruling means "parents will finally be able to learn the skills they need to get off welfare," she said. "Since the lawsuit, I've gotten calls from women across the state who want nothing more than to get through school, get a job, and get off welfare, and the only thing stopping them was [a lack of] child care."

Others argued that the initial cost of the ruling would be outweighed by the long-term benefits.

"It is not going to save the state money... not getting people off welfare and self- sufficient," said Sheme Lookner, a senior program associate with the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Challenges for Others

Mary Ann Higgins, the acting director of the division of JOBS programs in H.H.S.'s Office of family assistance, said the agency never intended to limit child-care eligibility, but simply assumed that it would be more "administratively simple" for states to channel A.F.D.C. clients seeking education and training through JOBS. "We never anticipated" a case like Miller, she said, where the state restricted or dropped people from GAIN in some areas.

The Miller ruling is "consistent with what we said" in the action transmittal, Ms. Higgins said.

But Kathy Lewis, the chief of the employment programs branch overseeing child care for the California Department of Social Services, argued that the ruling went too far.

"Our interpretation of the federal law is that it authorizes states" to provide child care for non-JOBS-participants, rather than requiring them to do so, she said.

Although it is not clear how the ruling will affect others, officials in some states acknowledge that they already face, or expect to face, challenges providing JOBS-related child care.

"We frequently have to limit our comparable program ... because of limited child- care resources," said Sandra Harris, the chief of child care for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Massachusetts also recently set a two-month moratorium on allowing new participants into jobs.

Responding to issues raised in the California suit, other states, such as Minnesota, have begun implementing new programs allowing training candidates unable to meet the criteria for its JOBS program to get child care.

"What we were waiting for was the federal go-ahead that this was indeed an entitlement," said Vicki Kunerth, the child-fund administrator for the state department of human services.

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