Panel Q&A addressing financial and economic issues that families are facing

At a recent membership meeting, Supporting Families Together Association (SFTA) hosted a panel that included Heidi Wegleitner & Erica Lopez, attorneys with Legal Action of Wisconsin, Leslie McAllister from the Department of Children and Families and Lilly Irvin-Vitela and Romilia Schlueter of SFTA with Jill Hoiting of SFTA moderating. Below are a series of questions that were posed in writing, but were not able to be read for the panel before the session ended. See the responses here!

Question: How can we support families that are facing credit issues or have bad credit due to multiple evictions?

Heidi Wegleitner: Help families obtain income to support a housing payment and utilities going forward.   If they have enough income to gradually pay off debt owed to a former landlord, they could do that.  Of course, they should keep records of payments made and avoid paying in cash.  If they dispute the debt and it shows up on their credit report, they have the right to dispute it and the credit reporting agency must report it as disputed.  If the debt is disputed, they should not make payments on the debt.  If the existence of the debt is not disputed, but the amount is, they could make payments to pay off the amount they believe is owed, making it clear that they only intend to pay off the amount they agree is owed.  They should pay off more recent debts first because the old ones may be past or close to the statute of limitations and the time at which it will be taken off the credit report.  If they make a payment on an old debt, they reaffirm the debt and the statute of limitations defense is lost.  Debts to the government, especially public housing agencies, should be a priority because it is a barrier to eligibility for low income housing programs.  Utility debts should also be prioritized.  I think it is ridiculous that folks are denied access to housing related to negative credit history that is unrelated to housing, but it happens all the time.  If these are medical related debts, that should be pointed out and could be the basis for a reasonable accommodation request to make an exception to their screening policy forming the basis of denial if the negative credit history if it was related to a disability.  Hospitals also have “charity care” programs available for folks to apply for forgiveness of debt that could be explored.

Question: What resources are out there to help families who make too much for BadgerCare, but are not offered insurance through their work?

Erica Lopez: HIRSP, the Health Insurance Risk Sharing Plan is an option.  The Health Insurance Risk-Sharing Plan (HIRSP) offers health insurance to Wisconsin residents who either are unable to find adequate health insurance coverage in the private market due to their medical conditions or who have lost their employer-sponsored group health insurance. Applicants are required to meet HIRSP eligibility criteria to qualify.  To determine eligibility and get more information about this program, click here.


Jill Hoiting: Wisconsin currently has over 30 Federally Qualified Health Centers. FQHCs must be located in a federally designated Medically Underserved Area or serve a federally designated Medically Underserved Population. Additionally, they must offer a sliding fee scale and provide services regardless of ability to pay. To find a health center in your neck of the woods, click here. Additionally, as mentioned above hospitals and even some clinics have charity care programs that can be applied to for specific services or to relieve past medical debt. Other assistance options do exist, such as prescription assistance for low-income and often uninsured individuals and families. The Partnership for Prescription Assistanceoffers information on which pharmaceutical companies offer assistance. Often times health centers can also help to link families with these assistance programs.

Question: How do families access resources that are traditionally offered through an FRC, if they do not have an FRC in their county?

Lilly Irvin-Vitela: Sometimes these resources are offered through health and human service departments, school districts, community centers, and faith-based organizations/churches. What’s unique about FRCs is that a whole continuum of services is available that are prevention focused rather than treatment or intervention focused.


Jill Hoiting: Additionally, your local 211 can be a great way for families to access resources in their community. To find your local call center visit: 211 Call Center Search.

Question: What quality assurances are in place to make sure that counties are accountable to families and that power issues are not dysfunctional?

Heidi Wegleitner: Good question.  We are fortunate to have an Ombudsman for Human Services here in Dane County who helps individual families work through problems related to human services.  I think this is a very valuable position.  If it gets bad enough, the county could be held accountable through a lawsuit, which is what happened in Milwaukee County a few years ago.  Leslie also spoke to the importance of sharing micro-problems to help craft macro-solutions.

Question: What rights do families who are currently residing in shelters have?

Heidi Wegleitner: Shelters should have a grievance process available to families who have complaints with the shelter.  This may be related to improper denial of shelter or other issues related to the condition of the shelter or treatment of staff.  The rules of the shelter, admissions policies and time limits will vary depending on the shelter.   What can be problematic about shelter grievance processes, as we’ve noticed here in Madison, is that the entity processing the grievance is the shelter itself which is obviously biased and lacks the impartiality required to make a fair decision.  We have proposed a third party grievance process here in Madison.  Problems could also be brought to the attention of the agencies funding the shelters, which have the purse strings necessary to incentivize improved performance. Additionally, homeless kids have rights under McKinney-Vento.  Click here for more information from DPI’s webpage describing those rights.

Question: How do we address the diversity of primary languages that families bring to the table when dealing with financial and legal issues?

Heidi Wegleitner: We use Language Line to talk to folks with different languages over the telephone.  We also hire interpreters when necessary.  Usually, in a pinch and for more informal stuff, the family will have a friend or other family member that they may be able to bring with them to help them communicate and understand what is going on.  This is not ideal, and is very problematic with issues related to family law and child protection, but for some basic communication it can help.  Of course, it should be someone they trust.

Erica Lopez: Also, make sure that the person translating is not a minor child. The notices issued by public benefits are issued in the language that the families often speak.  With some, but not all immigrant families, there are often literacy issues that are more of a barrier than even language at times.  Even persons that understand Spanish may not understand the specific language in the notices.  This is why it’s important to get copied on any correspondence with the family if there are language barriers.

Question: How do we know if a family is or isn’t receiving every benefit they are entitled to?

Erica Lopez: Education about public benefits is key here.  There are materials online for every public benefit that help you understand some of the basic eligibility criteria.  There are handbooks and publications online that provide an overwhelming amount of information about public benefits.  You may have to designate one person on staff to print out materials for the rest of the staff.  The information is widely available on websites such as: Forward Health by the Department of Health Services and the Department of Children and Families. The benefits that help families include FoodShare, Wisconsin Shares, Caretaker Supplement, Emergency Assistance, Job Access Loan, W-2 and Emergency Payment, BadgerCare Plus, Medical Assistance.  Each of these benefits has a website that provides the information you need – a simple Google search will yield the right website.  It’s just a matter of culling through the website.  Another option is to contact your local legal services agency for training on public benefits.

Leslie McAllister: The ACCESS website and the Covering Kids & Families Toolbox are both great resources to help find out if families are receiving the public benefits they are eligible for. While I absolutely agree that all folks that work with families should be well-versed about public benefits, I think it is also critical that one a trusting relationship is developed, families are asked directly about which programs they’ve applied for and what programs they participate in. In the spirit of empowering families, I’d love to see staff be able to “coach” families about what programs they might be eligible for and how to most appropriately advocate for themselves within those systems. For example, if the family believes they are eligible for a particular program but were determined ineligible, the staff could help them by better understanding the eligibility rules and could help them “build their case” to be reevaluated for eligibility.

Question: How is the current economy impacting children, families and communities, as it relates to abuse and neglect? How is it impacting child care?

Lilly Irvin-Vitela: As we know from the research around Strengthening Families when parents have increased stress, there is increased risk for child maltreatment.  This is true for financial stress as well.  During periods of economic down turn and increased unemployment, risk factors for child maltreatment increase.  For example, prior to 2007 the rate of abusive head trauma (shaken baby syndrome) was 8.9 per year per 100,000 children.  Currently, it is 14.7 per 100,000. For more information read Berger, Fromkin, Stutz, Makoroff & Scribano’s article Abusive Head Trauma During a Time of Increased Unemployment: A Multicenter Analysis. A down economy is a call to action to find ways to better support people experiencing economic stress. As for child care, in the first few years of the recession, there was a significant drop-off in regulated child care programs and anecdotal evidence of an increased use in family friend and neighbor care.

Leslie McAllister: There are some great articles, including some by UW-Madison researchers that discuss the connection between poverty and child maltreatment, particularly neglect. Here’s the link:Poverty and Economic Conditions. Another good brief about what the latest data tells us about poverty is Two Generations in Poverty by Child Trends.