Sunday, November 28, 1999
State can't withhold kids' food stamps to punish mom
BY BEN L. KAUFMAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
States go too far when they cancel food stamps for children whose mothers don't help find their absent fathers.
Language in the tough new federal welfare reform law is less than clear but such Draconian sanctions are not called for, the 6th Circuit said.
The issue arose in Michigan in 1992, when Antoinette Walton told Michigan authorities that a Mr. Jackson was newborn Te'Asha's father. A year later, she said it was Randle Mooring, but a blood test excluded him as a possibility in 1996.
Ms. Walton told officials that she had little information about Mr. Jackson except that she'd given him a picture of the child and he lived on her block during the pregnancy.
No one found Mr. Jackson.
State officials said Ms. Walton wasn't cooperating in establishing her daughter's paternity and warned it would end the family's Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) grant.
Meanwhile, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which altered the food stamp program and replaced AFDC with Temporary Aid to Needy Families.
On Nov. 1, 1997, Michigan cut off cash assistance and food stamps to the entire household: Ms. Walton, daughter Te'Asha and her son, Ethan, whose father acknowledged and supported him.
Ms. Walton accepted cancellation of her food stamps but she sued in Ethan Walton's name to protect her two children's benefits.
She said the new federal law does not allow termination of food stamps to minors when parents fail to establish paternity or provide child support.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds in Detroit granted summary judgment to Ethan and ordered Michigan to change its food stamp policy.
The state appealed and lost 3-0.
Judges Nathaniel R. Jones, R. Guy Cole Jr. and Eric L. Clay said the crucial provision in the food stamp law nowhere expressly provides for disqualification of an entire family's food stamp benefits because of one family member's failure to meet a federal, state or local law. To the contrary, the language of that provision explicitly applies to individual members of a household.
However, Temporary Aid to Needy Families allows the outright elimination of household (cash) benefits for the failure of a member to cooperate in establishing paternity.
Because Michigan extended that language to its food stamp policy, the 6th Circuit turned to the legislative history of the law to divine congressional purposes.
They concluded that Congress did not mean for states to eliminate household food stamp allotments in the fashion undertaken by Michigan. Congress' concern for innocent minor children can be seen in the care Congress took in discerning between individual sanctions and household sanctions which deprive dependent children of food stamp benefits.
Sex offender loses
A sweeping challenge to Tennessee's Sex Offender Registration and Monitoring Act ended up in utter defeat for people covered by the 1994 law.
Arthur Cutshall was convicted of aggravated sexual battery. He challenged the 10-year registration requirement and neighborhood notification as a violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the 5th Amendment.
Registration and notification and a second punishment for the crime for which he already has been punished, Mr. Cutshall said.
U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Wiseman in Nashville upheld the registration but said sex offenders must have an opportunity to protest before information about them is released.
Both sides appealed; Tennessee won.
Judges James L. Ryan and Alice M. Batchelder also upheld offender registration. They said the language of the act was regulatory rather than punitive and and it imposes no additional penalty akin to revocation of license or loss of livelihood.
Any burdens stem from abuse of registry information by the public rather than from the law, Judge Ryan wrote for the court majority.
Official release of the information violates no constitutional right to employment, privacy, or travel, Judge Ryan continued. The Constitution does not include a general right to nondisclosure of private information.
Therefore, he is not entitled to any procedural protections under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, including a hearing before registry information is released.
Judge Jones disagreed, saying a sex offender is entitled to a hearing, especially because Tennessee views all sex offenders the same, regardless of the severity of their crimes. This is especially true where crimes are less severe, he continued. The harm to them should inaccurate disclosure to the public occur would be great.
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