The office of the Springfield, Southern Division, U.S. District Court. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

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By Clara Bates, Missouri Independent

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Missouri’s social services agency violated the law in the way it has administered its food assistance program.

U.S. District Court Judge M. Douglas Harpool ruled that the state’s practices — including long call center wait times and a lack of accommodations for those with disabilities — violate the laws governing the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Missouri Department of Social Services’ call center issues ultimately denied eligible Missourians meaningful access to benefits.

“While call wait times fluctuate and have shown some improvement, the record demonstrates too little progress,” Harpool wrote. “Consequently, Missourians who suffer food insecurity have been forced to either go hungry or seek alternative sources of food when their applications are denied.”

In February 2022, a federal lawsuit was filed against the social services department arguing the state’s “dysfunctional” call center deprives eligible Missourians of SNAP benefits, more commonly known as food stamps. 

Plaintiffs described subsisting on little food while using up prepaid phone minutes waiting on hold for an interview, and, due to disability, struggling to understand the application forms but being unable to get through the call center for help.

An interview is required to sign up for or recertify SNAP benefits.

Without interviews, SNAP applications and renewals are automatically denied after 30 days — even if applicants have tried and been unable to get through. Around half of all SNAP denials in the state are due to failure to complete an interview, according to data obtained in litigation. The average call center wait time for the SNAP interview line, as of late last year, The Independent found, was over an hour.

“The high percentage of denials based on failure to interview is a direct consequence of the failed administration of defendant’s SNAP program,” Harpool wrote in his order.

“These denials are not based on the applicant’s eligibility but on the inadequacies of [the Department of Social Services’] process,” he wrote.

Mark Douglas “Doug” Harpool is a United States district judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

The lawsuit was filed by New York-based National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and Stinson LLP, on behalf of individual low-income Missourians and the advocacy group Empower Missouri.

“Today’s decision is a vindication of the rights of Missourians,” said Katharine Deabler-Meadows, attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

“The Court has recognized the immense harm that DSS is causing to people who depend on SNAP to feed themselves and their families,” she said. “We are excited that DSS will now have to implement systems that ensure all Missourians can access SNAP.”

The decision orders the social services agency to come into compliance with federal SNAP law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and outlines several steps the agency must take, under the court’s supervision.

The steps the state must follow, as outlined in the order include:

  •  submitting a report with specific changes it will make to comply with the law within 30 days;
  • filing monthly reports with the court with detailed data on SNAP applications and wait times, and filing that report with several members of Missouri state government outlined in the order;
  • submitting a proposed plan of action and timeline of implementation “to address shortcomings in the administration of SNAP as identified” within 90 days, including a reduction in call wait times and denials based on failure to receive an interview and compliance with the ADA. 

After the state complies with the order, the court “will determine what, if any, further actions, orders, remedies, or proceedings are appropriate,” Harpool wrote.

Harpool has been candid in previous hearings about his concerns over the state’s progress since the lawsuit was first filed.

“I continue to be amazed that it’s been since this case started,” he said in a January motion hearing, “that the state’s whole focus is how can we avoid liability rather than how can we get these benefits to our citizens.”

Hardin Haynes, the attorney representing DSS, rejected that characterization, according to court transcripts.

“The whole time this has been going on,” he said in the January hearing, “DSS has been doing what it can to increase its ability to do interviews throughout this process. That has never stopped.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

DSS has previously said it is doing all it can to hire more staff, grant overtime, move to automate assistance and contract with private call centers.

Agency leaders pointed to resource issues and challenges getting more staff as it requested $4 million this year for a “call center bot” to increase automation and reduce the need for staff on the general call center line.

Missouri Independent

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: More by Missouri Independent