Tackling a Systemic Problem: How the Children’s Disability Project Is Fighting the Dedicated Account

WHAT IS A DEDICATED ACCOUNT?

Dedicated account (n.): A separate bank account into which the Social Security Administration (SSA) deposits retroactive, or past-due, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit payments.

            On the surface, this sounds straightforward enough. Imagine that John (a fictive client, age 8) applied for SSI in January 2018 and was denied. John’s mother sought legal representation from the CDP, and at his June 2019 hearing the judge found him disabled, thereby approving him for SSI. So, eighteen months stand between the date of John’s initial application and SSA’s approval. John’s monthly benefit is $200, so he is able to collect eighteen times that – $3,600 – in retroactive benefits. This is a victory, to be sure.

            But there’s a catch: the $3,600 is relegated to John’s dedicated account. This means that he cannot use that money on just anything, because the dedicated account comes with a host of regulations. Not only does SSA mandate the type of bank account into which this money must be deposited, but once the money is deposited there, it must be spent by a certain person, in a certain way.

            First, the only person who may spend that money is John’s representative payee. The representative payee (usually the child’s mother) is also the person who must open the account in the first place. It must be a checking, savings, or money market account – which means it cannot be in the form of mutual funds, stocks, bonds, trusts, or certificates of deposit. Also, the title must show that the child owns the funds, including interest.

            Once John’s mother opens his account, she can only use those funds in two ways: 1) for John’s medical treatment or 2) for John’s education or job skills training. Sometimes it can also be used for personal needs assistance, rehabilitation therapy, special equipment, and other sorts of expenditures that are squarely for the child’s well-being. However, dedicated account money may not go toward food, clothing, or shelter; only regular monthly SSI benefits may be used for those. (Exceptions may be made in cases where the family is facing eviction, but those exceptions must be explicitly granted by SSA.)

            Social Security monitors dedicated accounts keenly. The representative payee must complete an annual report on dedicated account expenditures (as well as a report on the use of regular monthly SSI funds), and for this reason, the representative payee must keep receipts and bank statements. This expense record is crucial.

            Often the representative payee believes that s/he is performing these tasks according to what the SSA has stipulated: John’s mother, for instance, understands that any withdrawal from the dedicated account must go toward something for John that is related to his disability. However, she does not understand just how narrowly Social Security defines what that “something” is. Then she experiences a harsh wake-up call:

            John’s disability means that he has trouble sleeping, so his mother uses dedicated account funds to purchase a breathable comforter ($100) for his bed. However, she does not realize that this expenditure requires asking for SSA’s approval first. So, after having dutifully recorded the price of the purchase and submitting her report to the SSA (without SSA’s written approval of the purchase), she is shocked to find out that the comforter is apparently a misapplication of funds, and that she must return the $100. Again, dutifully, she does what SSA asks, believing that this money will simply go back into John’s dedicated account. However, repaid misapplied funds go straight to the Treasury; John has just lost $100 of his benefits permanently.

~          ~          ~

HOW IS THE CHILDREN’S DISABILITY PROJECT ADDRESSING THIS ISSUE?

Situations like this occur all the time: the representative payee, believing that she is acting according to both her child’s best interest and Social Security’s mandates, gets charged with misapplying dedicated account funds – and ultimately the disabled child gets punished for the payee’s unknowing “mistakes.” The Children’s Disability Project noticed this unjust trend. Not only are regulations on dedicated accounts far too stringent, but field officers (FO) are highly subjective in their decisions about whether those funds are being used lawfully. Moreover, SSA does not adequately convey to representative payees that they ought to get written approval from a FO for every expenditure. The only warning SSA gives is that the representative payee must be prepared to explain any expenditure and how it relates to the child’s disability. Well, John’s mother explained; the issue was that SSA was dissatisfied with her explanation.

Since its founding in 2007, the Children’s Disability Project has taken steps to change this flawed policy. In 2008, CDP created the Saving and Spending Workbook, which offers guidance to representative payees as they track their dedicated account expenditures. In May 2017, Northeastern University School of Law Professor Mary O’Connell wrote an article (featured here on our blog) entitled “Supplemental Security Income’s ‘Dedicated Account’: A Debunked Urban Legend and Twenty Years of Waste.” In 2018, a California parent group reached out to CDP and Professor O’Connell as a fellow body fighting the dedicated account, thereby broadening our network of anti-dedicated account advocacy. In 2019, CDP worked with Disability Law Center’s Linda Landry, Esq. and Professor O’Connell to draft a letter to the Social Security Advisory Board about suggested policy changes. The Board reviewed the recommendations and acknowledged the serious problems with administering Dedicated Accounts. However, they want to conduct further studies on this matter.

In addition to these initiatives, CDP has represented many clients who have had trouble accessing their dedicated account. Though John’s story is fictive, the following case, which is presently open with CDP, is real – and just one of several dedicated account cases that the CDP is currently handling. To conclude, here is Deidre’s story (excerpted from the CDP’s letter to the Social Security Advisory Board):

            Deidre is a 22-year-old young woman who began receiving SSI benefits in October 2010 when she was 13. Her disabilities included depression, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, obesity and learning disabilities. By the time Deidre’s claim was finally processed by SSA, she was owed approximately 31 months of retroactive benefits (March 2008 application). Deidre’s mother, Brenda, served as Deidre’s representative payee until Deidre was 21. Brenda also has disabilities including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and a learning disability. Brenda had a long work history until she suffered an incapacitating injury. Brenda currently receives SSDI benefits.

            In 2010, CDP successfully represented Deidre on her SSI claim. Six years later, Brenda contacted CDP. Although Deidre was receiving monthly SSI benefits, she had only received one disbursement of $2,113.20 from her much needed dedicated account funds, which totaled over $10,000.

            After she graduated from high school, Deidre wanted to attend Quincy College (QC) to study business. Brenda asked SSA to release funds from the dedicated account for Deidre’s tuition and school supplies, but SSA refused, claiming that there had been both an overpayment to Deidre’s account and a misapplication of funds by Brenda. At her mother’s urging, Deidre registered for classes and attended QC with some student aid (partial tuition) while Brenda struggled to purchase books with Deidre’s monthly SSI and Brenda’s SSDI benefits. In June of 2016, Brenda contacted CDP for help with accessing Deidre’s dedicated account. By that time, however, the semester had ended and Deidre had failed her classes because she did not have the books and supplies she needed to keep up with the assigned work. Together, we contacted SSA, and Deidre, Brenda and CDP attended a meeting at the Social Security office concerning the release of the retroactive funds. We soon learned that Brenda understood that as long as she used the dedicated account funds for Deidre’s education, health and physical well-being she was in compliance with SSA’s rules. A review of Deidre’s SSA file revealed that despite a tedious and complex process spanning approximately three years (2010 – 2013), and requiring the completion of multiple forms and numerous trips to SSA, only one disbursement from the dedicated account had been made. The results were disastrous for Brenda and Deidre.

            On September 29, 2010, prior to opening Deidre’s dedicated account with her local bank, Brenda signed a “Statement of Claimant or Other Person,” a standard one page description of the dedicated account. Brenda took the agreement to mean that she could use the dedicated account money for any expenses related to Deidre’s impairments, as long as all purchases made were for Deidre. In 2011, a disbursement of $2,113.20 was made from the dedicated account and Brenda used the money for necessary items for Deidre, such as larger clothing, low calorie food for weight loss, hair treatments, and school supplies. On April 14, 2011, Brenda signed a “Representative Payee Report of Benefits and Dedicated Account” form, which was completed by a FO staff member. On February 6, 2013, Brenda signed a dedicated account “Use of Funds Statement,” again completed by FO staff. In the “Use” statement Brenda described her purchases for Deidre along with the cost of each item and provided receipts. The next day, February 7, 2013, Brenda received a notice from SSA alleging misapplication. Brenda contacted SSA and on February 22, 2013 signed a statement drafted by SSA agreeing to repay the $2,113.20, despite the fact that all of this money had been spent for Deidre’s needs. Brenda began paying SSA $50 per month, until she could no longer afford the payment. All of these payments were returned to the U.S. Treasury and not to Deidre’s dedicated account.

            Despite SSA’s claim of overpayment and misapplication of funds, in 2016, after speaking with the SSA district manager, we were able to get SSA to release funds for books, a laptop and tuition for Deidre’s upcoming college semester. After the 2016 release of funds, the local SSA office experienced a staff change. The new claims representative assigned to Deidre’s case refused to release any further tuition payments until the alleged overpayment and misapplication issues were resolved. The FO staff change and the refusal to release further funds is a clear example of FO staff’s subjective interpretation and application of the dedicated account rules (i.e., FO staff person #1 will approve an item and FO staff person #2 will deny the same item). CDP, representing Deidre, appeared before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to challenge SSA’s actions in Deidre’s case and to request that SSA be ordered to release funds held in Deidre’s dedicated account (approximately $8,000 in retroactive SSI) for payment of her tuition, books, school supplies and other necessary expenses. In his decision, the ALJ waived the full amount of the alleged overpayment, finding that Brenda and Deidre were not at fault, and that no misapplication had occurred. The ALJ ordered that the balance in the dedicated account be released. The ALJ further found that all monies spent on items for Deidre were necessary.

            Deidre’s case illustrates the many pitfalls associated with administering the dedicated account. According to the ALJ, SSA staff did not properly apply the concept of “other” allowable expenses such as hair treatments and larger clothing; SSA did not do enough to ensure that the representative payee had a clear understanding of the many restrictions on the use of the dedicated account; and SSA failed to timely release funds. Though she was entitled to the funds in her dedicated account, the restrictions and the bureaucracy surrounding that account meant that it profoundly failed Deidre. Only eight years later – after Deidre had abandoned her dream of attending college – were the funds released, and then only by court order. Most children receiving SSI cannot access legal advocates. For them, the dedicated account often means that funds which are supposed to be used to accommodate their disabilities are, in essence, forfeited. Cases like Deidre’s – which, sadly, are commonplace – prove that the dedicated account rule needs to change.

It is an ongoing mission of the CDP to track dedicated account cases and continue pushing for policy change.

Meet Our Team: Nasrin Mohammad

Nasrin Mohammad has always been interested in working with children and families – and in November 2018, this interest steered her to the Children’s Disability Project of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS-CDP). At the time, she was a 3L at Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL), completing her fourth and final “co-op,” a school-credited learning structure that places students in term-time internships. “I obviously wanted to do my last co-op in a field that I loved,” Nasrin reflected, noting that the CDP was the perfect capstone to her career as a law student.

As an undergraduate, Nasrin was a dual-major-double-minor, earning majors in Political Science and International Affairs and minors in History and Law & Public Policy. Her main focus at the time was foreign affairs, and her studies took her to Rio de Janeiro, Prague, and Brussels. During this time, she also interned at two law firms, Ropes & Gray LLP and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP – the latter hiring her as a Law Clerk for the Managing Attorney’s Office for three years after her undergraduate graduation.

“Coming out of that experience, having worked there for three years, I knew this wasn’t what I wanted to do,” said Nasrin, who valued the experience for its introduction to the legal world. It confirmed for her, before she even began law school, that she did not want to practice at a big law firm. “My long-term goal is to open a non-profit for women and children in Bangladesh, giving medical care, educational tools and legal representation, helping women and children get off their feet,” Nasrin explained.

According to Nasrin, her background greatly informs her career aspirations. Nasrin emigrated from Bangladesh when she was 8 years old, which sparked her interest in international law: she recognizes the poverty, overpopulation, and lacking social systems in Bangladesh and has developed a passion to serve the underserved through law and policy.

At Northeastern Law, Nasrin’s co-ops focused on family law. Her first co-op placed her at the Brooklyn Defenders Services, Family Defense Project. There, Nasrin said that she observed a “vicious cycle of punishing people for being poor.” She went to court regularly with her supervisors: “This is where I fell in love with family law.” So, for Nasrin’s second co-op, she worked for two judges in Family Court in King County Family Court, New York.

Ultimately she found her way to CDP, which Nasrin described as the perfect fit. “It was amazing for me as a person of color, working with black and brown bodies on disability cases that affects the entire family.”

As CDP’s Legal Intern from November 2018 – February 2019, Nasrin said she was treated as an associate, which helped to transition her from a law student to a practicing lawyer, just a few months before her graduation from NUSL. “This was the first time that I had full case management. Tara would give me a folder and say, ‘This is your case.’ I just thought this was an amazing opportunity,” Nasrin reflected.

With CDP, Nasrin had the opportunity to work on cases at all levels of the process. She won hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ); she went to the Appeals Council; she even drafted and filed two federal court complaints. Nasrin said that winning the ALJ hearing was particularly rewarding. Her young client  was not receiving the proper care for her behavioral and cognitive disabilities at school, and now, with her SSI benefits, this young girl can afford years of care, thereby leading a fuller life at school and in the community with her deserved supports.

Nasrin just sat for the July bar exam and is taking August to unwind and move back to her hometown of New York City. As she looks ahead to her next job, she said that CDP has opened up the possibility of practicing disability law, in addition to family law.

“CDP was a really great call for me. The CDP family is very strong, and so incredibly supportive. They don’t underestimate you; they push you; they give you the resources as much as they can. I feel like when I go into the real world, when I get my bar exam results, I’ll feel more equipped, more confident, like: If I could do this as a student, I can do this now.”

By Isabel Ruehl – CDP Student Intern

Civil legal aid gives mother a voice and hope

Courtesy of Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).

This photograph of Danielle is courtesy of MLAC and Kenneth Martin.

Danielle’s daughter was born with sickle cell anemia, a potentially life threatening disease. After her applications for benefits were denied twice, Danielle reached out to Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) for help with what would become an eight-year legal battle for her daughter’s health coverage.

When her daughter was still an infant, Danielle missed work frequently to bring her to the hospital, eventually losing her job. She applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for her daughter and was denied. She reapplied, and was denied again, this time due to an administrative error – a missing signature on the application.

Danielle found a job at the Head Start program which allowed her to care for her daughter and provide services for other families. Through that job, Danielle learned about Greater Boston Legal Services. She reached out, and met Tara, her GBLS attorney.

Tara helped Danielle appeal the SSI decision before an administrative law judge. At the hearing, a medical expert downplayed the severity of the disease, and the appeal was denied. Danielle and Tara fought a long battle of denials and appeals for seven years, while Danielle’s daughter continued to face frequent health crises and hospitalizations.

Over the years, Danielle became an expert on her daughter’s sickle cell anemia. She learned how reactions were triggered, what the best conditions for her daughter were, and to be on guard at all times. Danielle knew that despite what the medical professional in administrative court said, her daughter deserved the SSI benefits. Meanwhile, she put herself through school to become a social worker, motivated to help people in similar situations to her own.

After eight years, the SSI benefits were finally approved, retroactive to the original date of application. The benefits gave Danielle’s daughter the medical support she needed. When her daughter turned nine, Danielle reported, “She’s really doing well.”

Through advocacy, GBLS empowered Danielle in a civil legal system that felt inaccessible and frustrating. “Whenever I felt out of my element and scared, Tara told me, ‘We’ll take care of the lawyer piece, you take care of your daughter.’ It gave me a sense of security, a feeling that I had a voice,” Danielle said. “GBLS-and Tara- never gave up on us, and that gave us hope.”

Meet Our Team: Majda Abbas, Legal Intern

“Since deciding to pursue a career in the legal field, I knew that I wanted to be able to advocate and help those who could not afford representation,” said Majda Abbas, who has been a Legal Intern with the Children’s Disability Project since March 2019.

Majda is a rising 3L at Suffolk Law School, concentrating in Health and Biomedical Law. Though she has a broad range of experience in the legal field – from public sector work at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to private sector work with Welch and Associates LLC – Majda has long known that she wants to specialize in health care.

The inspiration came from an internship she held as an undergraduate at Suffolk. When Majda was a junior – at the time, planning to be a child psychologist – she worked at Advances Learning Center, using Applied Behavior Analysis to teach social skills to children with autism. From January to June, Majda devoted her Saturdays to a class of students between the ages of 4 and 16, and they made a lot of progress – until many stopped coming. Numbers dwindled during Majda’s final few weeks at the internship.

“I asked one of my supervisors, and she said that’s because their insurance can’t cover any more sessions,” Majda recalled. “This was so beneficial for the kids. And just seeing them not be able to come back really…hurt.” This, she said, is when she realized she wanted to go into health care law.

Here in the Elder, Health & Disability Unit, Majda has been working with dozens of clients to get them the Social Security benefits they deserve.

“While at GBLS, I have learned the real importance of showing empathy towards clients, whether it be through actively listening to them, recognizing their emotions, or understanding that they are currently going through one of the most difficult times of their lives,” Majda said.

Although Majda primarily works with children’s cases, she named an adult client as one who has taught her the most. This woman – the mother of a child with disabilities, whom CDP represented – was seeking Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits due to mental disabilities stemming from serious domestic violence in both her previous marriages, as well as witnessing the Iran-Iraq War at a young age. Majda worked closely with her to develop the case, write its brief, and deliver the opening statement before an Administrative Law Judge.

Majda said that she has also formed real connections with the mothers who bring claims on behalf of their children. About one family, Majda said, “They have to deal with so much adversity, especially the mom, but she just keeps fighting. You feel like she’s put on this earth just to be their mother.”

As Majda looks ahead to her post-graduate future, she envisions clerking or doing policy work in some capacity, perhaps working for a congressperson or senator. She hopes that these applications of legal practice will broaden her modes of experience. She also plans to work in policy this fall in a Human Rights and Indigenous People’s Clinic, in which students will be primarily learning to write legislation.

Majda sees GBLS’s Children’s Disability Project as formative in her development as a lawyer for its balance of independent work and robust mentorship.

“GBLS has made me feel more secure about being a lawyer because it showed me the different things that come with being a lawyer,” Majda reflected, citing the various stages of the process, from interviewing clients and getting medical records to writing briefs and attending hearings. “I wanted to change people’s lives for the better, and seeing the way this organization’s dedication and commitment to providing free legal services has dramatically influenced those individuals and families who are low-income is what inspired me to work for GBLS.”

By Isabel Ruehl – CDP Student Intern

Meet Our Team: Isabel Ruehl, Undergraduate Intern

On June 3 – just two month ago – I started my summer-long student internship with Attorney Taramattie Doucette, Project Director of the Children’s Disability Project (CDP). I didn’t yet speak the language of “ALJs” and “HIPAA releases” and “file memos”; I hardly knew the difference between SSI and SSDI, between Medicare and Medicaid. I had only a superficial understanding of the vast system of Social Security programs, but I was interested in healthcare and disability rights law and badly wanted to learn more.

And so I did – a lot more, and quickly. Already I’ve appeared at a hearing, met with clients, drafted file memos, liaised with pro bono partners, and sent countless medical records requests to gather evidentiary support. On my first day here, Atty. Doucette told me that I need to “touch a case each day in order for it to move forward.” And so 15 cases, so far, have grown before my eyes and at my fingertips. Each tells a different story – but each is about a child (and, by extension, family) that has been wrongfully denied government benefits on the basis of disability.

I’ve been interested in civil rights law for a while. My older brother, age 24, is on the “severe” end of the autism spectrum, and although he has some wonderful mentors and advocates in his life, he has experienced a lot of injustice, too. I’ve also seen how families of persons with disabilities are affected by those inequalities. I want to devote my career to rights-based advocacy and public interest law – and I also hope to integrate creative writing into my future. As a rising senior in Harvard’s English Department, I am preparing to write my senior thesis on the changing landscape of adult autism services. I hope that this fusion can amount to some form of advocacy as I study problems and present them to a broader audience.

My internship here with the CDP combines those passions – law and creative writing – in an exciting way: in addition to my caseload, Atty. Doucette has also asked me to update CDP’s blog. The goal is for this to be a platform to learn more about clients’ stories, GBLS work (challenges and victories alike), systemic disability rights issues, SSA news, and anything else relevant to our legal aid work. I’m honored to be a part of this project, at the heart of which is storytelling.

Naturally my favorite part of working here is hearing clients’ narratives firsthand, in-person. But I hope that CDP blogs can capture some of that urgency, empathy, and advocacy that characterize the claims that clients bring to GBLS. I’ve met some remarkable people here; stay tuned for their stories.

Pro Bono Partnerships

Featured in the GBLS Annual Report 2019.

For several years, lawyers from Proskauer Rose LLP have partnered with attorneys from Greater Boston Legal Services’ Children’s Disability Project to help children and their families appeal wrongful denials of disability benefits. For GBLS’ young clients, the financial support received through disability benefits allows them to meet their health and welfare needs and thrive in their schools and communities.

Recently, Proskauer’s pro bono attorneys appealed a denial of SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits for GBLS’ client Jameel*, a fourteen year-old boy who suffers from diabetes, depression, and ADHD. Jameel’s father was violent and abusive, and was opposed to any mental health treatment or academic supports for Jameel. Despite resistance from Jameel’s father, Jameel’s mother pursued treatment for her son because she knew it was essential to his well-being.

Eventually, Jameel’s parents divorced, but years of an abusive marriage left Jameel’s mother feeling hopeless for herself and for Jameel. She struggled to manage Jameel’s diabetes and to secure the educational accommodations his disabilities require. After Jameel’s claim for benefits was denied, Jameel’s mother was determined to ensure he had the help he needed, and came to GBLS. A team of pro bono attorneys from Proskauer took on Jameel’s case.

To prepare Jameel and his mother for the hearing, the team from Proskauer had to consider the many complicating factors in their lives: the impact of long-term domestic violence; Jameel’s serious physical and mental health limitations — which made it difficult for him to participate in his case; and shame about seeking benefits.  Jameel’s advocates worked tirelessly with the family to gather evidence, draft a compelling brief, and thoroughly prepare Jameel and his mother for the hearing.

The team’s hard work paid off. The victory resulted in Jameel obtaining the disability benefits that will ensure that he receives the support he needs to thrive in school and beyond.

*Names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Pictured above: Attorneys Rachel Dougnac and Benjamin Sacks, who provided legal representation in this case.

Meet Our Staff: Brian Kiwanuka, Esq.

Since March of 2017, Brian Kiwanuka has been a Staff Attorney of GBLS’s Children’s Disability Project and Elder, Health and Disability Unit (EHDU). His expertise spans many areas: from children’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cases to adult SSI and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) cases, from Medicare to nursing home law, Brian applies his passion for public interest law to every case he encounters.

But, had you asked him five years ago whether he would practice disability law specifically, Brian would have said no. As an undergraduate at George Washington University, studying political science and Spanish, Brian planned to practice international law. In fact, he interned for six months at a Chilean organization called Chile Transparente (“Transparent Chile”), where he did international law research, focusing in particular on the global relativism of collusion cases.

Brian then attended Northeastern School of Law, during which time he planned to practice unemployment law. He interned at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), where he focused on discrimination cases of race, national origin, and disability; he also interned at the American Federation of Government Employees, where he advocated for the rights of TSA workers. Brian maintained his interest in international law, interning at the International Bar Association, where he researched the effect major sporting events (such as the Olympics and World Cup) have on human rights law and foreign domestic law.  

After graduation, when he heard that GBLS was looking for an experienced, bilingual attorney, he applied for the position: “I was both of those things,” Brian said, smiling. “It all fell into place.”

Indeed it did: Brian’s Spanish fluency has been an immeasurable asset to the Children’s Disability Project, for he is able to communicate with clients and communities in their first language. CDP Director Taramattie Doucette says that this simple connection – language – lends Brian’s representation a special empathy and clarity, because suddenly the linguistic barriers that Spanish-speaking clients face disappear. Brian is able to communicate in a way that eliminates the confusion that often accompanies legal jargon, while (perhaps more importantly) relating closely with the clients and their experiences. After all, one seeks legal aid from GBLS only if one has suffered; imagine, on top of that, navigating the legal process in a language that is not one’s own. Implicitly, Brian’s ability to provide Spanish-speaking representation conveys deep empathy for clients’ adversities.

Brian says that he enjoys working with children and their families, naming one of his CDP cases the most inspirational he has encountered: “It was a good case because everyone was really happy with the outcome. It was really good to see an immigrant family get the benefits they deserve.”

The client was a six-year-old girl whose mother came from Honduras and did not speak any English. She could not understand why Social Security was refusing her daughter SSI benefits, since her daughter was clearly disabled: born with a condition called cloacal malformation, this little girl had extreme difficulties with several personal care activities, including toileting. Despite having to use a catheter and requiring a nurse on-hand at school to support her many needs, this child was twice denied SSI benefits. With his Spanish skills, Brian was able to engage deeply with the client and her mother, gathering robust evidentiary support to present a case that was compelling to all – and ultimately resulting in a victory. The life of this child and her family was undoubtedly, positively, and permanently impacted by Brian’s hard work.

By Isabel Ruehl – CDP Student Intern

Who Is Our New Social Security Commissioner?

Introducing Andrew M. Saul

AndrewSaul_WikimediaCommons
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

With a Senate confirmation vote of 77-16, Andrew M. Saul was sworn in as Commissioner of Social Security on June 17, 2019. His six-year term expires on January 19, 2025 – and marks the first Senate confirmation of a Social Security Commissioner in more than five years.  He was nominated by President Trump to replace Nancy Berryhill on April 17, 2018.

The Commissioner is responsible for administering the Social Security retirement, disability, and survivors insurance programs, as well as the Supplemental Security Income program. Altogether, these programs annually distribute more than $1 trillion of benefits to upwards of 70 million people – around one sixth of U.S. residents, according to recent statistics. The Social Security Administration itself amounts to around 1,500 facilities and 63,000 employees, all under the leadership of Saul, who reports directly to Trump.

“The Social Security programs touch the lives of almost every American – serving in this position is a tremendous privilege and an awesome responsibility,” Commissioner Saul said. “I am humbled by the opportunity to help the agency to deliver critical services to the American people.”

But the question remains: Who is Commissioner Saul? And how will he take SSA, the largest social welfare administration in the United States, into the future?  How will he deal with delays and other service issues caused by the underfunding of the agency’s administrative budget? How will he ensure that the trust fund remains viable? With his experience in big business and politics, many advocates for Social Security oppose his appointment, arguing that Commissioner Saul is unfit because he has no direct experience in the field.

“He has no background in Social Security whatsoever,” said Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works, an advocacy group aiming to “maintain Social Security as a vehicle of social justice.”

Commissioner Saul earned a B.S. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 – Trump’s graduating class – before beginning his career in business. He managed two large apparel chains, Brooks Fashion Stores and Caché, for more than twenty years, then founded an investment firm, Saul Partners, L.P., with his father in 1986. He is also a member of a slew of Boards of Trustees, including the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the United Jewish Appeal Federation, Mount Sinai Hospital, the National Gallery of Art, and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

This last body is a source of skepticism for some, since the conservative think-tank has continually called for significant cuts to benefits. For example, in 2018, the Manhattan Institute published an article in the New York Post predicting Social Security’s “looming bankruptcy.” Many Social Security supporters are worried about budget cuts: does his board membership indicate how he may steer the Social Security Administration?

Saul’s most relevant experience to Social Security is his tenure as the Chairman of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which manages the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for federal government agency employees and military members. This committee provides retirement security to 3.7 million people, and Saul was unanimously confirmed for this position by the Senate.

Still, many remain uncertain about the relevance of TSP to SSA. “While the experience Mr. Saul gained from his time working on the federal …TSP was undoubtedly valuable, it has little value to helping him run the Social Security system, unless he seeks to privatize the program,” wrote Nancy Altman, Social Security Works President and Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, in a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.

Although journals have cast Saul as a partisan figure since his brief New York Congressional campaign in 2007, some remain hopeful that he will work toward SSA change beyond budget cuts. U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is one such optimist, as well as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which helps to oversee the SSA. This committee has twice approved Saul unanimously, both in 2019 (28-0) and 2018 (27-0).

“Once the Senate confirms Mr. Saul, I intend to hold him accountable for how he and the SSA treat its workers as well as its beneficiaries. Both relationships are in dire need of improvement,” Senator Cardin said. “Foremost, I will hold Mr. Saul to his word that he will work to restore a constructive, positive relationship between labor and management at SSA. I also expect him to continue to modernize the disability claims system and SSA’s outdated and fragile IT infrastructure.”

Despite those rumors and reluctance regarding Saul’s appointment, many agree that he will provide stability to the SSA. After all, he is the first Senate-confirmed head of SSA in over five years. President Obama’s 2013 appointee, Carolyn W. Colvin, was not confirmed, and Nancy Berryhill served as Acting Commissioner (a 300-day term in 2017, from January to November) before she continued leading the SSA as Deputy Commissioner of Operations until June 2019.

Jim Allsup, the CEO of Allsup Inc., is optimistic about the capacity for a new Commissioner to revitalize SSA. As he wrote for a Washington Times Opinions piece, “A new, Senate-confirmed leader can provide a fresh start for a beleaguered agency and the weary constituency it serves.”

By Isabel Ruehl – CDP Student Intern

SOURCES:

https://www.cardin.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/cardin-statement-on-the-confirmation-of-andrew-saul-to-be-the-next-social-security-commissioner

https://www.ssa.gov/agency/commissioner.html

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzSSrp0ipxjRMXNlVC05MzR3bHVRN0d6UjE5eVB5c1VoWlBF/view

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/apr/18/why-the-social-security-disability-backlog-must-be/

An unprecedented and comprehensive article on the problems with Dedicated Accounts, written by Professor Mary E. O’Connell, of Northeastern University School of Law

This is an introduction to a problem that we (The Children’s Disability Project) have struggled with for years. The problem is called the “ dedicated account,” and we are not alone in our frustration with it.  In fact, three Commissioners of Social Security have tried to have it repealed!

The Children’ s Disability Project (CDP) has been representing children for ten years.  Early on, we discovered, to our dismay, that the families whose cases we had won could not access the money now owed to them by Social Security. When we tried to fix the problem, most often we ran up against a brick wall of confusion and misinformation.

As the dedicated account problem consumed more of our attention, we turned to Mary O’Connell, the mentor of CDP, longtime friend, and our former professor at Northeastern University School of Law.  Mary agreed to research and write an article about the history of the children’s SSI disability benefits program and explain the confused and confusing dedicated account.  Mary has written a splendid article, first of its kind, in which she lays out the history and the rigidity of the dedicated account as well as the undeserved bad reputation that parents have had who try to access their money.

Here is a shortened version of Mary’s article.

If you would like to read the original article you may do so by clicking HERE.

 

 

Interested In Volunteering or Interning with CDP? Hear from CDP’s 2017 Interns!

How to Apply:

CDP is currently accepting applications for Spring and Summer interns and volunteers. If you are interested in joining the CDP team, please send a resume and cover letter to Maria Casas, via email at jobs@gbls.org

Shermila Kher, Harvard Law School

Shermi When Taramattie Doucette offered me a summer intern position at the Children’s Disability Project (CDP), I immediately accepted. I wanted a job that involved advocating for children, I enjoyed my interview for the position, and I’d heard only good things about GBLS. But as excited as I was, I tried not to let my expectations get too high.

After all, I was an awkward 23-year-old nobody stumbling out of 1L, going to work among seasoned attorneys at the largest provider of legal services in New England. I figured I should be prepared for the chance I might spend 98% of my time quietly fetching coffee and papers for the real lawyers, and 2% giving redundant input on a project that would be shamelessly exaggerated on my résumé later. I never imagined that within ten weeks I would have written three briefs, independently interviewed multiple clients, presented the opening statement at a hearing, and learned the names of most hospital records department heads in Eastern Massachusetts.

The CDP is a small group with an enormous caseload, and all employees – including interns – are used to their full potential to keep things running smoothly. In June Tara was set to interview the mother of “Liam,” a potential CDP client. Unfortunately, on the day Liam’s mother was free, Tara had to appear at a hearing. Since Jessica Podesva (a Fellow), had trained CDP interns on how to do an interview, and I was already planning to observe this one, Tara asked me to fill in. The interview went swimmingly, and I wrote a detailed memo for Tara explaining everything I knew about Liam.

Another great thing about CDP is that once you start working on a case, you generally get to keep it. This allows interns to more deeply invest themselves in their clients, and to have variety in their daily work. Plus, having one person take on most of the duties of managing a case is usually the most practical choice. At the end of the interview with Liam’s mother, I had her sign release forms so we could access Liam’s records. Once I had the release forms on hand, sending requests for records was a quick and easy task. Since I sent the requests, naturally it fell to me to follow up with the records departments. When the records finally arrived, I had to go through them to check the dates – page by page, since hospital records are not always in perfect chronological order – and if I was flipping through a file anyway, I might as well read it. And if I was taking the time to read a record, and look up all of the medical abbreviations contained therein, I might as well take notes…

But, to me, the most amazing thing about interning at CDP was the respect and trust everyone gave us. During one of Tara’s regular check-ins, she asked me to write a memo explaining the evidence in Liam’s case, and give my opinion on whether his claim had merit. I believed we could prove Liam’s impairments met Social Security’s definition of childhood disability. When Tara and Jane Smith (co-founder of CDP) read my merit assessment, they immediately agreed, and Tara told me to notify both Social Security and Liam’s mother that we had accepted the case. At this point, I was still the only one who had interacted with Liam’s mother, or directly reviewed the evidence. I was thrilled that Tara was willing to take on a case based on my disability law analysis; that a child was going to get legal representation because I believed in him.

I could say much, much more, but this is already shaping up to be one of the longer posts on CDP’s Blog.  Working for the Children’s Disability Project was one of the most meaningful, educational, and affirming experiences of my life. If you want to use your skills to help children and their families, and to make friends and mentors who will surely last for years to come; apply to be an intern at the Children’s Disability Project.

Charlotte Anrig, Harvard University

image1 My work at the Children’s Disability Project this summer far exceeded my expectations. As an undergraduate, I never imagined that I would be entrusted with important work, and yet Attorney Taramattie Doucette and fellow Jessica Podesva encouraged me to write briefs, conduct interviews, and gather school and medical records for over ten cases. (My work paid off: we won one of my cases, and we had a favorable hearing for another.) I gained hands-on experience with legal practice, and I became a better writer, researcher, and problem-solver. I also received extraordinary mentorship throughout the summer. Tara and Jessica pushed me, taught me, and inspired me, and they continually demonstrated the power of compassionate and thorough counsel.

Beyond the CDP office, my summer internship brought me into contact with an intricate social system. I learned about some of the life-saving possibilities and unacceptable limitations of government benefits programs, and I realized what an important role advocates play in the entire ecosystem. Through my work gathering school and medical records, I also learned more about how school and healthcare systems within Boston serve low-income families. My work with these records helped me understand the kinds of support that these families do (and do not) have access to, and it brought my attention to the ethical nuances of handling client records. In reading through records, I often gained an incredibly intimate view into someone else’s life, and I thought a lot about the balance between reading for useful evidence and reading with respect and empathy.

Undoubtedly, though, the best parts of my summer experience involved getting to know clients. I met some wonderful children and some truly amazing parents—mothers and fathers who worked tirelessly and with enormous love to help their families, even when faced with the harshest circumstances. Working for them was an honor and a privilege.

Edward Kim, New York University

Working at Greater Boston Legal Services for my first college internship was an incredible experience. I spent my time divided between the Children’s Disability Project (CDP) and the Family Law unit at GBLS. My summer work  for CDP included pursuing records from treating sources and schools in order to gather as much information as possible about the child’s disability.  I got to know how to advocate and navigate large hospitals and treating facilities in my pursuit of  medical information.  I drafted many letters and file memos concerning seeking evidence or about the case itself.  On the cases assigned to me, CDP depended on my development of the evidentiary record because it was used for representation of individual clients at administrative hearings.  I enjoyed being a part of the CDP team where staff willingly taught me and valued my input.

My tasks for Attorney Patricia Tellis-Warren in Family Law consisted of organizing, and preparing the evidentiary record for court.  The community at GBLS is incredibly supportive; everybody offers their time and assistance to help the interns achieve the most accomplishments that they can during their time in the office. This internship has greatly deepened my understanding of the legal field, and has prepared me for any future legal pursuits, such as attending law school. The knowledge that the work done at Greater Boston Legal Services provides life-changing help for people who truly deserve it is an inspiration.