Paula Cranfill lost her food benefits again this year.

The Baltimore City resident wasn’t surprised. In the near-decade she’s received the benefits, the state has cancelled them about half the times she has tried to renew.

Cranfill, like most food benefits recipients, has to prove she still needs the government help by submitting paperwork every six months to the Maryland Department of Human Services, the state agency that administers food benefits.

“They [the agency] don’t open the mail soon enough, and they drop me, and I have to reapply,” Cranfill said, going so far as to take time-stamped photos while placing the envelope in the post office mailbox.

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The cycle is the same: canned goods and boxed pasta from the food pantry while she waited the roughly 45 days for an answer. There’s never any question whether she qualifies.

She was tired of it.

The 55-year-old, who suffers from mental illness and multiple chronic conditions that limit her ability to work, has received help from various government services for about 15 years, including for housing, health care and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

The day after she got the August cancellation letter, she called the state’s customer service number and stayed on hold for 2 1/2 hours. Fed up with waiting, she decided to walk 20 minutes from her apartment to the Pennsylvania Avenue office, phone still pressed to her ear.

A close up photo of a hand putting an envelope addressed to a state agency into a mailbox.
Baltimore resident Paula Cranfill took a photo of herself mailing documentation for her food benefits to prove it had been sent on time. (Courtesy of Paula Cranfill)

“I was trying to see which way was the fastest,” she said. Before she could get in line, a security guard made her hang up the phone.

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The woman at the social services office told Cranfill she would have to reapply and directed her to a computer. But Cranfill isn’t computer savvy and asked for help. An employee directed her to fill out a paper form.

And then, finally, she objected.

”That’s when I asked for a hearing,” Cranfill said, remembering the fine print on her SNAP paperwork. “Because of all the aggravation they put me through from the time I got the first letter until that day.”

Cranfill’s filing of an appeal for a hearing started a new journey through Maryland’s benefits appeals process with the Office of Administrative Hearings.

Though it is not a court, the independent agency is staffed by administrative law judges who hear civil disputes between agencies and those opposed to their decisions. They can hear hundreds of case types across 30 state agencies, according to the agency’s website.

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Filing the civil appeal triggered an urgent response — one Cranfill had not received by following the agency’s procedures, sending in her paperwork on time, calling customer service, and showing up in person. That night, the Department of Human Services reinstated Cranfill’s benefits.

She was relieved, but stunned.

“I knew it had to have been because I asked for a hearing because I’d never gotten it back that fast,” she said.

Stories like Cranfill’s are familiar to attorney Michelle Salomon Madaio, director of the economic justice program at the Homeless Persons Representation Project. Her group provides free legal representation to unhoused people or people at risk of losing their housing, including in SNAP benefit hearings before administrative judges.

“You can do all the right things, as a recipient of SNAP and other benefits, and get nowhere,” Madaio said.

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More than 200,000 Marylanders have learned that lesson this year. Since June of 2021, Maryland has reported the largest SNAP participation drop in the country as a percentage, according to federal data.

Though state officials blamed the decline on people going back to work after the pandemic, tens of thousands of calls to the Department of Human Services flooded customer service phone lines and hundreds of vacancies in local social services departments left offices understaffed.

Contractors who provide assistance with SNAP applications say they saw eligible clients lose benefits because of state-related administrative hurdles, a lack of interpreter services for Spanish speakers and mail delays.

But often those who lost their benefits can gain leverage by contesting the agency’s decision, something Madaio said she’s seen many times.

Filing an appeal sparks an internal process within local social services offices, Madaio explained. Employees, called appeals representatives, troubleshoot cases before they go to a hearing. In instances of obvious errors or mishandling, it’s been Madaio’s experience that the agency will fix the case.

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Both federal and state law require benefits to be restored when the state makes an error.

The Department of Human Services holds a pre-hearing conference for every customer who appeals and benefits reinstatement is an option until a decision is made, an agency spokeswoman said.

“As a matter of practice, DHS reinstates benefits for customers upon notification that a case was improperly closed,” Communications Director Katherine Morris wrote in an email.

Confidentiality prevented the agency from commenting on Cranfill’s case.

“DHS is committed to providing the highest level of customer service to all customers,” Morris said.

About half of all appeals filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings in the last three fiscal years were never heard by a judge, according to agency reports. The cases were withdrawn, settled, canceled or dismissed before they got that far.

Attorney and University of Baltimore law professor Daniel Hatcher, who teaches law students how to defend public benefits cases, explained that once someone files an appeal, agencies snap into action to determine whether they can defend their decision before an administrative law judge.

“Many times they would rather not do that,” Hatcher said. “So they try to find a way to address and correct their errors,” once there is an appeal filed, he said.

”Why did it take that level — to go all the way to the office of administrative hearings — before the agency did whatever it’s supposed to do?” Hatcher said of the 50% of cases resolved without a hearing.

Cranfill’s case is one of those.

Several weeks after learning she’d gotten her benefits back, social services called again to tell her to withdraw her appeal, she said. “They told me what to email to drop the case,” she recalled.

”I thought I should be able to go through the hearing anyway,” Cranfill said, regretting the decision to withdraw her case. “So they could mark that they did make a mistake.”

But of the food benefits cases that do advance to a hearing, appellants are unlikely to prevail.

In nearly 3 out of 4 food benefits decisions, administrative judges sided with the state, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis of 426 hearing outcomes since 2017. Nearly all of those appellants had no legal representation and often faced off against an agency representative, likely someone fluent in policy and benefits laws.

The Office of Administrative Hearings Director of Operations John Leidig said the agency does not analyze hearing outcomes ortrack the number of pro se appellants.

Unlike in criminal cases, a lawyer is not appointed to those who cannot afford one for a civil agency hearing. Pro bono resources are available, but they are not funded sufficiently to provide access to counsel to everyone who needs it, Hatcher said.

But lawyers who represent clients in food benefits cases say their involvement yields high success rates and helps their clients access crucial basic needs.

Madaio’s team settles most of their cases before they go to a hearing — and wins most of their appeals, she said.

She credits her clients with her case wins. Often they have done everything right, kept their documentation, and it’s the agency that has not followed procedures, she said.

However, the process can be draining for the already vulnerable, food-insecure people she helps. An appellant can wait for months to get their case heard before they ultimately receive what they were owed, Madaio said.

”Best case scenario, you win, and you get the benefits that you should have gotten all along,” she said. However, Madaio added, “You can’t go back in time and feed your family.”

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