Maryland parents claim state agency bungled pandemic relief program

Maryland social services boosts its “successful” distribution of pandemic relief funds, but parents say they have only received some of the funds — or none at all.

Published 10/6/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT, Updated 10/6/2022 10:30 p.m. EDT

Benefit cards piled up behind lunch tray with missing food
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As state senators questioned her agency’s performance at a recent hearing, Secretary Lourdes Padilla emphasized how the Department of Human Services worked diligently to issue benefits during the early days of the pandemic.

“And we were very successful in that,” Padilla said, highlighting pandemic relief programs as one of DHS’ key achievements.

But a Facebook group filled with Maryland parents trying to get benefits for their children disagree. These parents are fighting for owed benefits after the state delayed issuing pandemic relief funds for the 2021-22 school year amid record-high inflation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the delays in an email.

Outside of the delays, dozens of parents also told The Baltimore Banner that they often either received less than what was promised, or nothing at all.

After exhausting efforts to reach the agency over the phone and by visiting local offices, frustrated parents crowdsourced information on a Facebook group called “P-EBT maryland.” In the Facebook group, which has more than 23,000 members, they traded advice on how to navigate DHS to get their Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer benefits, a federally-funded program through the USDA that financially supplements children who can no longer receive free or reduced school meals because of COVID-related absences and closures.

Padilla told senators that Maryland’s P-EBT program benefitted about 550,000 vulnerable children with over $1 billion in benefits from the federal government. As the pandemic dragged on, DHS and the Maryland State Department of Education secured additional federal funding to continue the P-EBT program.

The Banner posted a Google form in the Facebook group asking about their experiences with P-EBT. Nearly 150 people filled out the form, but some respondents did not answer all the questions or chose multiple answers for a given question. Over 130 respondents said they had issues receiving P-EBT, and 119 said the lack or delay in funds was harmful to their family.

In an email, DHS Communications Director Katherine Morris said the state has not experienced delays issuing cards. She said the cards might be undeliverable if parents have not updated their mailing address with their local school system.

“While this does not result in issuance delays, it delays access to benefits as recipients must contact DHS to update their addresses and reissue/mail their cards,” she said. Parents who haven’t received funds can submit an inquiry online and, if found credible, benefits can be retroactively issued.

“It is not unusual for an individual to feel like they receive a partial benefit amount, especially if they are comparing their amount to their peers,” Morris added.

When Shalay Jackson received only one P-EBT card, she knew something was off. Maryland social services as of May 2021 required every eligible child to receive a separate P-EBT card, and Jackson had five school-aged children.

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Jackson, who is a member of the Facebook group, said she repeatedly called the P-EBT hotline and sometimes waited on hold for hours. She filled out the customer inquiry form on the DHS website and also visited her local office when she could afford gas.

“They don’t make it easy for us at all,” Jackson said.

DHS employees gave Jackson a myriad of reasons why her four other children didn’t get their cards. Jackson said one employee told her that she needed to contact her children’s school to register them. Another told her they had been sent to her house, but Jackson said she never received them despite getting other mail from DHS.

Local school systems must identify students eligible for free and reduced lunches including P-EBT, according to several government reports. The school agencies provide the data of eligible students to the Maryland State Department of Education, which then collaborates with DHS to issue the benefits.

But when Jackson called her children’s school, they said they didn’t have any information and advised her to ask social services.

“Back and forth,” Jackson said. “Nobody knows nothing.”

Other parents from the Facebook group echoed Jackson’s concern. Although DHS developed a P-EBT hotline, website and social media dedicated to information about the program, 123 respondents said they found the state resources unhelpful or conflicting. About 111 respondents said they turned to social media groups, like P-EBT maryland, to find information instead. In the Facebook group, posts range from parents asking for help maneuvering DHS, to organizing information on local food banks to reporting instances of benefits theft.

Parents The Banner interviewed said they were especially concerned about the P-EBT hotline, which connects callers to an understaffed DHS call center. Fifty-five parents told The Banner they waited on hold for over an hour. One respondent said they waited up to five hours.

DHS Deputy Secretary for Administration Daniel Wait admitted to state senators at the recent hearing that “resources within the existing call center were not sufficient” after the state lifted federal benefits waivers and eased requirements during the pandemic. Wait said call volumes over the summer had doubled from 20,000 calls to 40,000 in an average week with 30 to 45-minute wait times at peak hours. During the hearing, Wait added that the agency secured funding to hire more staff.

Stephanie Boone spent almost a year trying to get P-EBT cards for her three school-aged children. Boone said her family had recently moved during the pandemic, and the cards were sent to the wrong address.

On the rare occasion she got through to a DHS employee, usually after waiting upwards of an hour on hold, she said they would tell her to call someone else to fix the problem — her children’s school, the health department, or even the federal Internal Revenue Service. According to Boone, one DHS employee told her the three cards each had over $1,300 loaded onto them. DHS staff also regularly told Boone to fill out the customer inquiry form on the P-EBT website, which she did seven times. She said DHS never called her back.

Boone eventually received one of the cards, but not the others. So, she asked a friend for a ride to her local DHS office, where she sat in the waiting room for hours in August 2022. A supervisor told her that since she had not used the cards for the past nine months, federal regulations mandated that the thousands of dollars be expunged, she said.

“I felt like I was being punished,” Boone said. “How am I supposed to spend the benefits on the card if I never actually got the card?”

Boone said she never got the remaining two cards, but just a couple weeks ago, her infant son got a $195 P-EBT card even though he’s not eligible for the program. When Boone asked a social service employee why this happened she said she was told, “If they sent it to you, you’re supposed to have it.”

Even families who did receive P-EBT benefits told The Banner that recent delays with the benefits have been harmful to their family because of the rising cost of food. According to an email from a USDA spokesperson, Maryland had some delays issuing P-EBT for the 2021-22 school year. Two delays occurred during the summer around the same time the country saw the highest annual increase in consumer prices in decades.

DHS’ Morris said in an email that there were no official delays in issuing P-EBT because there are no “federally established timelines” and dates outlined in state plans are tentative.

According to Jackson, it took over a year to collect her kids’ remaining cards. Her regular benefits and paycheck were no longer enough to fill their fridge, so Jackson was hoping the P-EBT funds could help make up the difference. But, she said most of the cards didn’t come with back pay and some didn’t have any money on them at all.

“When something is promised, we depend on that money,” Jackson said. “That’s how we survive.”