Appealed From No. 390112569-004. State Agency Department of Public Welfare.
Before: Honorable Dan Pellegrini, Judge, Honorable James R. Kelley, Judge, Honorable Emil E. Narick, Senior Judge. Opinion BY Judge Kelley.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kelley
Michele Renee appeals pro se from an order of the Department of Public Welfare, Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (DPW), which affirmed the decision of a hearing officer denying Renee's appeal from a decision of the Lehigh County Assistance Office (CAO). The CAO had denied Renee's application for cash assistance. We affirm.
The facts of this case may be summarized as follows. On March 31, 1996, Renee submitted an application to the CAO for cash assistance, food stamps and medical assistance for herself and her five-year old son. In her application, Renee named the father of her child who was born out of wedlock.
In response to Renee's application for assistance, an interview was held with the CAO on April 19, 1996. At the interview, Renee claimed that she had "good cause" for refusing to cooperate in obtaining child support from her son's father as required under the Public Welfare Code, *fn1 the Support Law, *fn2 and the Pennsylvania Code (Code). *fn3 At the interview, Renee signed a form explaining the requirement to cooperate in obtaining child support, and the right to claim good cause for refusing to cooperate in obtaining the support. The form also indicated that, pursuant to 55 Pa. Code § 187.23(a)(3)(iii), Renee was required to provide the CAO with the corroborative evidence to support her claim of good cause within twenty days.
By letter dated April 30, 1996, Renee filed a "good cause" petition with the CAO explaining her reasons for refusing to cooperate in obtaining the support from her child's father. In the petition, Renee claimed that the pursuit of support would result in potential physical and emotional harm to herself and her son, and outlined a history of the abusive relationship she had with her son's father. The petition also listed a number of instances of harassment which Renee had endured that were perpetrated by other individuals, purportedly done at the bidding of her child's father.
The CAO requested that Renee submit additional documentation in support of her "good cause" petition, and extended the time for its submission to June 20, 1996. When the additional documentation was not received, the CAO sent Renee a notice on August 7, 1996 which indicated that "good cause" had not been established and found her to be ineligible for the cash assistance benefit. The other benefits requested for her and child's needs were continued.
On August 30, 1996, Renee sent the CAO a letter appealing this determination. In the letter, Renee claimed that the DPW has used, and continues to use, compulsion to obtain paternity disclosures which placed her at risk for violence, thereby violating her Fifth Amendment rights. In particular, Renee initially asserted that the disclosures required by DPW placed her at risk for physical and psychological harm. In support of this contention, Renee cited statistics relating to physical abuse occasioned by women in the United States at the hands of an abusive partner. Renee submitted that the provisions of DPW's "good cause" policy prevented an individual from terminating an abusive relationship before it escalated into the type of physical violence documented in those statistics.
In the letter, Renee also asserted that the methods used by DPW to discourage silence on paternity disclosures constitutes physical and psychological compulsion. Renee noted that as a result of her failure to cooperate, the cash benefits available to her family decreased by 33%. She also indicated that since filing for good cause, she had endured further instances of harassment. Renee stated that she and her son had suffered physical harm as a result of these economic sanctions and harassment.
In Conclusion, the letter stated:
In summary, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare has used, and continues to use, compulsion to obtain paternity disclosures which place Appellant at risk of violence, thereby violating her Fifth Amendment rights. The alarming statistics on domestic abuse in America suggest that in cases where an absent parent does not enjoy formal or informal visitation privileges, a custodial parent should not be coerced to make paternity disclosures against their better judgment. The Appellant seeks to establish a legal precedent for limiting the power of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare to compel paternity disclosures in such cases, and [the] restoration of her cash assistance benefits.
On November 5, 1996 a hearing of the appeal was conducted by telephone before a hearing examiner. At the hearing, a representative from the CAO outlined the procedure which occurred from Renee's filing for benefits to the determination that she was ineligible based on her failure to establish "good cause" for failing to cooperate in obtaining support from her child's father. At the hearing Renee again recounted the harassment she has experienced, and asserted that compelling her to seek support violated her Fifth Amendment rights.
On December 5, 1996, the hearing officer issued an order and adjudication denying Renee's appeal. In the ...