The Maryland Department of Human Services will fully reimburse stolen food and cash assistance, reversing course on a policy that limited how much, and how often, theft victims could be refunded.

DHS announced the policy change Tuesday in an internal memo to department staff, effectively ending many of the restrictions on how stolen welfare can be replaced.

This update comes after a Baltimore Banner investigation revealed DHS was shortchanging welfare theft victims for months, violating state law.

The policy update is a welcome change to welfare theft victims, who can now fully recoup their stolen funds. As welfare benefits theft swept the nation, Maryland was hit particularly hard. Welfare theft in the state skyrocketed from $90,000 in 2021 to over $18.3 million in 2023.

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The effects were devastating for low-income families in Maryland. When someone gets their credit card stolen, they usually get refunded immediately. But when welfare recipients had their benefits stolen, there were few structures in place to reimburse them. People went hungry, their bills unpaid.

Federal and state lawmakers each passed legislation in 2023 to replace stolen benefits. Congress set a two-month maximum and deadlines for replacements using federal funds. The Maryland law did away with those restrictions in favor of fully reimbursement, using a combination of state and federal funds to replace stolen food and cash assistance.

Earlier 2023 internal memos from DHS interpreted the state law to apply only to the law’s retroactive reimbursement period of Jan. 1, 2021, to Oct. 1, 2022. The agency told its local department heads that all further thefts were subject to federal reimbursement guidelines, including its deadlines and reimbursement caps. This resulted DHS reimbursing many Maryland families for only a part of what was stolen — or sometimes nothing at all.

Local advocates and lawmakers disagreed with this interpretation, telling The Banner that the new state law was meant to replace benefits in perpetuity, not just for the retroactive period.

“We were all literally at the table together in Annapolis going through this bill draft line by line, talking about it through email, and then ultimately when it was time for the hearing, we were all up there together — the advocates, DHS Secretary [Rafael López] and other DHS staff to support the bill,” said Public Justice Center attorney Ashley Black, who helped write the legislation, in a prior interview with The Baltimore Banner.

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When asked why DHS made the change, department spokesperson Brian Schleter said in an email: “We have been committed from the beginning to making sure that families whose benefits have been stolen by thieves are able to get the help allowed by federal and state law.”

Vanessa Fleeton poses for a portrait in Hyattsville, Md.
Vanessa Fleeton poses for a portrait in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. She had over $2,000 worth of benefits stolen and the state initially would only reimburse her for $46. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The limits on reimbursement had a significant impact on welfare recipients. The Banner investigation followed the story of Vanessa Fleeton, who had almost $2,500 in food assistance stolen. DHS refunded only $46, less than 2% of the theft.

It took six months of fighting DHS’ decision and the help of a lawyer for Fleeton to finally be made whole. In the interim, she accumulated credit card debt and late bills to make ends meet. Even with the full reimbursement, Fleeton still hasn’t been able to pay everything off.

But when The Banner reached out to her Tuesday, Fleeton said that the policy change almost made it all worth it. Almost.

“I’m not famous and I don’t have to be famous,” Fleeton said. “Nobody has to know my name, but the things that I am doing is causing an impact on the community. "

Brenna Smith is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner.

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