Recouping state money from kids target of lawsuit

FRESNO, Calif.

The little-known practice is sparking outrage. Critics say this is a new low, with California forcing children to repay the welfare debts of their parents.

Clarence Ayers, 75, has never faced a debt collector like this. He received a letter from the welfare office earlier this year saying his 14-year-old great-granddaughter, Irene L., owes nearly $3,000 for benefits her mother should not have received while pregnant with Irene.

Now Irene's current $334-per-month government aid is being cut until the debt is paid.

"I never knew that. I knew they went after grown people, and people that don't pay child support, stuff like that, but not children," said Ayers.

Jamie H. of Riverside County is now a college student and she too got a demand letter to pay back benefits her family received when she was 16 years old. Her wages and tax refund are being garnished, money she needs for school.

"Obviously, the state has gone out of bounds on this. It's just overzealous," said Mike Herald, Western Center on Law and Poverty.

The Western Center on Law and Poverty has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the two girls. It wants the state to stop this practice that has been going on for years.

"You're allowed to recover from the parents and a grandparent if they're part of an assistance unit," said Herald. But there's nothing in state law that says you can take money back from a child."

The California Department of Social Services says it's sensitive to the overpayment issue, but state law mandates that counties first go after the adults associated with the case when seeking a refund of benefits.

"When those efforts are fully exhausted, the county is required to seek recoupment of overpayments from any individual that was an aided member of a family case," wrote Michael Weston, in a statement from the department.

"They're supposed to protect the child. So why would the state do that? They're not protecting the child. They're actually victimizing that child," said Ayers.

The lawsuit also wants the state to refund all the money it has collected from children over the years from welfare payments. Oftentimes the payments were due to a clerical error.

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