Dropped telephone calls, delayed letters and a less than user-friendly automated system have many families in the Peach State outraged. Uncommon Journalism speaks to several people that have reported difficulties with the new statewide system, and what they believe DFCS officials should do to rectify the agency’s problems.
Last fall, Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) underwent a major structural shift. Their goal was to streamline agency services by switching to a new online-intensive, electronic system, heavily reliant upon the Common Point of Access to Social Services (COMPASS) portal. As such, the agency’s old policies, which usually entailed one-on-one interaction between families and a single caseworker, were replaced by a new “self-service” policy designed to speed up and simplify the bureaucratic process.
Problems with the new systems structure, however, were immediate. Scores of families dependent on DFCS services for benefits like Medicaid and SNAP reported receiving letters in their mail, informing them that they had to reapply for assistance before a specified cutoff date; and for many families, the mail itself did not arrive until after that cutoff date had passed.
To begin the renewal process, families were then asked to call a 1-877 number to report their problems to DFCS officials. Some have reported waits as long as four hours before they were able to speak to an agency representative, while others said they had to give up after the minutes on their government-issued phones ran out.
The end result for many families has been a cyclical headache: after contacting a rep on a phone line, they are asked to submit forms online. However, to check up on the status of their applications, individuals are then asked to call the same 1-877 number.
For families reliant upon DFCS, more waiting, and worrying, continued throughout the first two months of 2014. During one of the harshest winters in state history -- with a double dose of aberrant snow storms and temperatures dropping into the teens for several days on end -- many Georgian families found themselves beginning 2014 without food stamps or Medicaid coverage.
The state’s renewal process for children’s Medicaid has a maximum waiting period of 45 business days. For Georgian children who had their services dropped at the beginning of the year, many wouldn’t be able to access the same services again until almost two months afterwards. According to DFCS numbers, approximately two-fifths of all calls to the agency went unanswered last November; an open records request later revealed that about 40 percent of DFCS applications were not being processed within the agency's own mandated time frames.
The Human Corral
For a room with so many people in it, the Cobb County DFCS waiting area in Marietta, Ga. -- a suburb of Atlanta -- is astonishingly quiet. The cell phone chatter hardly rises above a soft mumble, and even the cries of infants sound abnormally subdued.
The room itself is something of an odd pyramid-shape, with a stairwell jutting out of the middle of the floor. The building is three stories tall, solid white with a somewhat post-modern design. Employees and clients are asked to enter the facility using opposite entrances.
A little before noon, the queue is approximately 100 individuals long. For hours, service seekers slowly plod through the line -- the composition today is about half and half African-American and Hispanic, with just a small smattering of Caucasians. Once clients reach the help desk, they are asked to take a seat on one of the room’s dark blue, solid steel benches. After that, they wait until their name is called, and they retreat to a secured room to speak with a specialist about their Medicaid and SNAP benefits.
The floors are a dull blue and grey checkered pattern. On two sides of the building, a row of computer terminals -- some with cathode-ray tube monitors -- are lined up, for individuals to complete online applications. There are several small offices in the back of the building, including a room specifically designed for clients to call the much-criticized 1-877 helpline. There are three customer service windows at the very back of the waiting room; all three are shuttered by plastic blinds.
The lighting in the room is dim, even when the midday sun shines through the acrylic glass near the front entrance. The staffers are constantly on their feet, moving in and out of offices and migrating from client to client. For the most part, they seem to be rather amiable, providing a sharp contrast to the dour expressions of the people they’re helping.
Periodically, a waft of warm urine and spilled milk drifts across the room. Even as the stench of a soiled diaper lingers overhead, the clients themselves remain inanimate; the expressions on their faces radiate a dejected, frustrated gleam, a look that appears to rest somewhere between utter bitterness and abject hopelessness.
For 49-year-old Stephen Moore, this is his first time ever standing in a DFCS waiting room. He is there, he said, because he cannot reach anyone over the agency’s telephone line.
“Every time you call, it just says its busy and they hang up on you,” Moore told Uncommon Journalism. “Even when you are on hold, listening to the music, it will come on with ‘if you want to access your account, please go to the website, and then it’ll just hang up on you.”
He lets out a nervous chuckle. “So you’re back at square one.”
“You see the long line up here, because its hard to get through to people over the phone,” said Mary Patton, a 33-year-old janitorial worker. “You get a lot of recordings, and a lot of hold time, and a lot of waiting time…it doesn’t make any sense.”
Since the switch to "One Georgia" model last October, Patton said she’s seen her services cancelled numerous times. She said it took “up to a month or a month and a half,” prior to visiting the DFCS office in person, before those same services were reactivated.
Chekeeta Simpson, 29, said her Medicaid benefits were cancelled in January. “I’m just finding out I didn’t have it,” she said. “I haven’t received a letter at all or a call.”
Earlier that day, Simpson said she attempted to use two phones to contact the agency. For an hour and a half, she waited.
“I didn’t get through on either phone,” she said.
Tanesha King, 30, is an early childhood educator. She said she goes to great lengths to avoid using the automated DFCS phone lines, stating that the new system makes it more difficult to “keep services.”
Additionally, she reports having problems with agency mail-outs.
“Stuff always mysteriously gets lost,” she said. “Or sent to the wrong address.”
While DFCS recently blamed the wintry weather for case backlog in a recorded message, Ricardo Dapaz, 33, believes the agency is using the snowstorms as scapegoats for call center problems.
“I don’t think that’s a very good excuse,” he said. “Everything by the phone doesn’t work, and we’re here, as you can see…people take forever to get going.”
Despite making countless calls, Dapaz said he has yet to hear a human voice on the other end of the DFCS phone line. “I had been calling many, many times, and sometimes I stayed on the phone for two hours, until the cell phone dies,” he said.
Nor has the agency been prompt in contacting him, Dapaz said. “They sent me a letter saying I was supposed to come [for an interview], but the letter came three days after the [scheduled] phone interview,” he said.
“They were supposed to call me, and nobody ever called me…I didn’t even go to my interview.”
Rage Against the Machine
A common complaint among DFCS clients in Georgia is the difficulty of accessing flesh and blood agency representatives.
Before the transition to the "One Georgia" system, Pracilla Guerra, 35, said it was fairly easy to get in touch with a human DFCS rep. Now, however, she encounters 45 minute long waits before being told to call back later by a pre-recorded message.
She came to the DFCS office because she doesn’t know if her services have been cancelled. “It doesn’t really say in the record,” she said, “but I’m not receiving benefits.”
A major problem with the automated system, Guerra said, was that it doesn’t make clear whether or not she’s been approved for benefits.
“If I’m calling to see if my benefits are going to come in, I can’t receive that -- all I can receive is a date,” she said. And sometimes, Guerra stated, even that information remains murky.
“It’s just, “OK, you’re going to have this amount on this date' and it doesn’t give you a date,“ she said, “it’s just blank.”
The new electronic set-up, she said, just makes an uncomfortable situation even worse.
“You’re already embarrassed because you’re receiving benefits, so to speak to an automated system becomes more embarrassing,” she said. “Because now, I have more questions, and I can’t even receive a human being.”
In light of the agency's recent difficulties, DFCS has asked clients experiencing problems to contact a Constituents Services telephone number. Mirroring the agency's call center hardships, however, many clients report being unable to get through that line as well; for those who dial a number listed on the agency's own website regarding Medicaid eligibility complaints and inquiries, callers are greeted by a message stating that a voice mailbox has yet to be set up.
Delmus Jordan, 37, said he’s been calling the DFCS line for the last three days, only to be told the call volume is especially heavy and asked to dial again later.
“You don’t make it to hold,” he said. “The only time I’ve been on hold is today, and I had two phones going simultaneously, and the shortest [wait] was an hour and forty five minutes.”
He also reports problems with the online COMPASS components. “It doesn’t back itself up, or send anything to your e-mail,” he said. “So it’s almost impossible to remember what your user name and all that is, and it boots you off sometimes for no reason.”
While the DFCS personnel he spoke to today “seem pleasant,” Jordan said he has no idea how to gage their effectiveness. “But it’s somehow better that they’re smiling at me and trying to help me,” he stated, “even if they can’t.”
Displaying a disdain shared by many other DFCS clients in the state, Jordan said the agency is beyond redemption at this point.
“There’s no way to fix the problem,” he said. “This is a government-run operation [and] people who don’t make incentive pay don’t try to work fast.”
When asked what state politicians should do to remedy the ongoing DFCS problems, Jordan’s response was instantaneous.
“Kill themselves,” he docilely replied.
Solutions…and a Lack Thereof
As to what clients believe the agency should do to improve services, many individuals provided the same response: a beefed up DFCS workforce.
A 32-year-old man who wished to be identified only as “Phillip” said that hiring more workers is a pivotal first step to remedying the agency’s problems.
“Put more people in positions [and] that can help and reduce the lines,” he said. “I know you’ve got a budget, but at the same time, you’ve got to extend some things to help certain things run.”
“That’s not even politics,” he continued, “that’s simple business.”
Moore also said DFCS should bring in more personnel, instead of depending on the COMPASS system to meet client needs. “It might be fine as far as trying to save money,“ he said, “but at the same time, we need more customer service.”
Others, however, believe that even more personnel can’t rectify the agency’s ongoing problems. “There’s so much to fix that I don’t even know where to start,” said Dapaz. “I think they need to start from the ground again, with the basics.”
Moments later, he offers a secondary proposal.
“They should quit,” he stated. “Put somebody else in their place, who can do a better job.”
Patton said that the agency direly needs to expand its assistance programs, and interact more regularly with those in need of services in the local community.
“I think state policy should be on a first-come, first-serve basis,” she said. “But at the same time, at the end of the day, if you have an appointment, I think you should be seen properly.”
King believes one possible remedy to the agency’s difficulties is to clamp down on those who may be exploiting the system -- “a better filtering of who actually needs [services] and who’s just trying to make a living off of it,” she put it.
More options should be accessible within the COMPASS system itself, Guerra believes. “There is more important information than when you’re going to get your benefits,” she said. “It needs to be more comprehensive.”
However, Guerra believes the biggest problem with DFCS at the moment is still its automated system. “I think they need to steer away from automation and more towards human beings that can answer questions automated systems can’t,” she said. “How beneficial can it be if it just revolves in a circle, and still doesn’t answer my question?”
It may not be until state policymakers visit DFCS waiting rooms themselves, however, that Moore believes the agency difficulties will be resolved.
“They need to come down here and just see what’s involved for all of the people here waiting, people having a long [wait] as far as trying to obtain government services,” he concluded. “It shouldn't take that long, because people need what they need…they should just come down and take a look, personally.”
Uncommon Journalism, 2014.