Sign On San Diego
December 4, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO — In 2008, when Jamie Hartley was 16 years old, her family was overpaid a total of $766 in welfare benefits.

But now Riverside County is demanding that Hartley repay the debt and it intends to “intercept” her next state income tax refund to get the money.

California welfare regulations for years have allowed, and even required, counties to go after minors for the debts of their parents, state officials told the Associated Press.

Attorneys for a Hartley and a Fresno man who filed suit Nov. 23 to try to stop the practice say they believe thousands of young people throughout the state are being unfairly required to repay millions of dollars in welfare money that mistakenly or fraudulently was obtained by caregivers or guardians.

Officials at the California Department of Social Services, which administers the welfare program called CalWORKS, said they do not track the number of children required to make such payments. The state’s 58 counties recouped $61.5 million for the fiscal year ending June 30. The counties reported $133 million in overpayments for the same time period.

“The department is sensitive to this overpayment collection issue. However, state law does not allow for latitude when it comes to the recoupment of overpayments of public assistance benefits,” said spokesman Michael Weston. “Counties first seek recovery from the adults associated with the case. 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…”

In Hartley’s case, the debt arose because her family continued to receive its full benefits for three months during the summer her brother turned 18 and graduated from high school.

Riverside County was unable to collect from Hartley’s mother, who subsists on untouchable aid for the disabled. So it has made Hartley, now 19, liable for the debt even though she was a minor when her mother signed up for welfare.

Hartley contends the overpayment was the county’s fault. But administrative law judge Gilford Eastham in April denied her appeal, ruling she was indeed on the hook for the overpayments regardless of fault. Eastham also said Hartley’s age at the time of the overpayment has no bearing on the debt now because she “is no longer a minor.”

Riverside officials could not be reached for comment Friday, with county offices closed.

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