New Guidelines Crack Down on Housing Discrimination

Rachel Batterson, director of the Housing Discrimination Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid, was interviewed by Channel 22 about new federal guidelines that are making it easier for people with criminal records to find housing.

According to the new guidelines, landlords must consider carefully before screening out applicants based on criminal history. They also can't screen some people, but not others, for criminal records if who they screen is based on race or other bases prohibited by the Fair Housing Act.

Rachel clarified what this means: "If 90 percent of the time you check the criminal background of African Americans but you don't check the criminal background of white people, you are discriminating against African Americans."

The Housing Discrimination Law Project investigates when people report that they believe they have been discriminated against. “We will send an African American and a white person out to apply for the same apartment and compare how they're treated," Rachel explained. “People of color, immigrants, people with children are all discriminated against at a pretty high rate, some of them almost to the 50 percent level."

HUD also cautions landlords not to consider arrests that don't lead to convictions and to consider what crime the applicant was convicted of and how long ago it happened.

Watch the interview on My Champlain Valley - Channel 22

Pressure is on for LIHEAP funding

Advocates of low-income Vermonters are decrying the lack of funding for heating assistance in the proposed 2017 state budget. ...

The state funds allow Vermont Fuel Assistance to offer aid to households making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is $48,500. Without state funding, federal guidelines would restrict aid to households making 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is $36,375. ...

Next week, Chris Curtis, staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, will testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the need to restore state funding for LIHEAP.

“This is another example of a poor tax. This is no different than the reduction in Reach Up funding for parents with disabilities,” Curtis said. “If we don’t have another warm winter like we did this year, there will be a whole lot of Vermonters going cold.”

Vermont schools grapple with the residual impact of opiate abuse

Educators, social workers and mental health professionals are sounding the alarm that Vermont’s opiate problem is working its way into the schoolhouse as one factor driving an increase in students with emotional problems.

Special education is tied to both poverty and opiate addiction, according to legislative testimony from Sherrie Brunelle, a paralegal with the Disability Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid.

“Is it tied to opiate issues, is it tied to poverty? I think yes to both. Is it tied to the fact that we don’t have in schools the mental health supports that educators and families need to address those issues early on (in preschool and early elementary)? Yes,” Brunelle said.

Closing of Eagleton School forces DCF to find placements for children with developmental disabilities

The Vermont Department for Children and Families is seeking new homes for six children with developmental disabilities because the school where they reside in Massachusetts will be closed following allegations of abuse. ...

Barbara Prine, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, said that children with developmental disabilities go to out of state residential facilities because there are not adequate services in Vermont.

Parents of children with disabilities may require extensive support and services in order to care for their children at home, Prine said. “Vermont doesn’t do as a good a job at providing those community supports for kids as for adults,” she said.

Prine said it is easier for abuse to go undetected in residential facilities. When children are sent out of state, different rules apply for the use of restraints.

“When you’re in a community, then it’s easier for the community to tell when something goes wrong,” she said.

Prine sees a need for more crisis services, wrap-around services, and opportunities for respite to support families with children with developmental disabilities.

Advocates push against Reach Up deduction

Advocates continue to oppose a reduction in state benefits for hundreds of families. The policy change was approved by the House nearly a year ago. In the fiscal year 2016 budget bill, lawmakers sought to save $1.6 million in Reach Up, one of the state’s most widely used benefit programs for families. The reduction in Reach Up payments is carried through in the fiscal year 2017 budget. ...

Vermont Legal Aidled an effort to fight the cut in federal court and halted the implementation of the program for six months. Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed. This year, advocates have returned to the Statehouse to push lawmakers to repeal the law in next year’s budget. ...

Christopher Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid, said he would support anything that “takes this terrible policy off the books.”

“We would certainly welcome any amendment that casts a spotlight on this problem,” Curtis said.

VT House advances $24M in fee hikes

The Vermont House advanced a $24 million round of fee increases and $13 million in higher taxes Wednesday as it prepared to debate a $1.54 billion general fund budget for fiscal year 2017. ...

Vermont Legal Aidand other groups representing disabled Vermonters brought dozens of people to the Statehouse on Wednesday to try to persuade lawmakers to restore a $1.6 million cut to the state’s welfare-to-work program that was made last year, affecting households receiving help both from that program and from Social Security disability benefits.

No Room at the Motel for Those on the 'Do Not House' List

In winter, Vermont goes to great effort — and expense — to keep its homeless population out of the cold. But on any given night in Chittenden County, as many as 100 individuals are on a "do not house" list. The state maintains a running tally of people barred from its emergency housing program.
Jessica Radbord, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, rattled off reasons "vulnerable" homeless people might not follow through on claiming a bed: a victim of domestic violence gets word that her abuser's friend is staying at the same shelter; someone with a mental illness can't handle a communal shelter setting.

Sometimes, just the logistical requirements — phoning ESD or finding transportation to the motel — are too much for the person to handle.

Those who find themselves on the list do have the option of appealing to an independent board within the Agency of Human Services. If the situation is time-sensitive, he or she can request an emergency hearing to avoid a several-day wait. But assembling a case in a matter of hours comes with its own challenges: "Often you're appealing a denial based on something that happened at a shelter two weeks ago, so it's really hard to get your witnesses together," explained Radbord.

Radbord has represented clients who've successfully gotten their sanctions overturned. But she said she's concerned that people aren't always informed of this option: "A lot of folks just give up and walk away."
"I would love to see there be no sanction list at all," said Radbord, who previously ran a domestic violence shelter in New York, where the right to shelter is enshrined in the state constitution.

Involuntary Medication Back In The Spotlight

VLA's Jack McCullough, who directs the Mental Health Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid, was interviewed on Vermont Edition on Tuesday, March 15 about why he opposes the Shumlin Administration's efforts to fast-track the process of involuntarily medicating mental health patients.

The Shumlin administration's proposed budget includes language that would speed up the legal process of getting permission to involuntarily medicate psychiatric patients - two years after a 2014 law that spurred debate over the issue.

Advocates say streamlining the process further would save money and improve outcomes for patients. Opponents say it's another step in chipping away at patients' rights. 

Listen to the recorded interview.

Panel: Remove involuntary medication policy from budget

A key legislative committee has come out against the administration’s attempt to use the budget as a vehicle for changing the state’s policy on medicating Vermonters in severe mental health crisis against their will.  ...

Jack McCullough, of Vermont Legal Aid, said it was “outrageous” to propose the change in the budget.

“I don’t think that the savings claims are believable,” McCullough said, “and I do not think that the state should be trying to balance the budget on the back of the most vulnerable people in the state.”

Vermont woman sues for health-care coverage

A Bristol woman whose case was expected to expand Medicare for thousands of people across the nation said the government broke its promise.

Now, she’s going back to court again, saying the federal government failed to abide by the settlement of a 2013 lawsuit that said she could not lose Medicare coverage just because her health was not expected to improve.  ...

Michael Benvenuto, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid Inc.’s Medicare Advocacy Project said it was not coincidence that a Vermont plaintiff took the lead role in the federal case.“We brought this national case in Vermont because we thought our judges would be good in this case,” Benvenuto said, adding that the same judge as before is expected to preside.

People are still being refused coverage, he said. The lawsuit could affect thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of people, but Benvenuto did not have an official count.

“Our case is, Medicare should cover people who have chronic conditions and need nurses or therapy to maintain their condition,” Benvenuto said. “They were supposed to change their manual, they were supposed to do an education campaign. ... Now three years later, we’re going back to ask the Vermont judge to really order them to do that, that we think what they’ve done has been really inadequate.”

This article was also published in the Rutland Herald.