It is an all-too-typical scenario: An immigrant woman has been battered continuously by a spouse. Now he has abandoned her, or she has escaped from their home, and she is indigent. The twist is that he is a legal immigrant, but her legal status depended on her relationship to him. She has no one to turn to for support except the government.
But in New York that support has not been forthcoming, according to the findings of federal Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, in a case known as M.K.B. vs. Eggleston.
"It is not the policy of the United States or the State of New York to leave destitute the battered immigrant wives and children of lawful U.S. residents just because their abusive husbands are no longer supporting them or providing them with a basis for obtaining aid," Rakoff wrote in his 83-page decision, but “just such dire consequences are occurringâ€¦.” Both New York City and New York State, the judge ruled, have been violating the rights of the plaintiffs in the case (and others in the same situation) through a lack of oversight, computer foul-ups, failure to train staff, distribution of materials that misstated the law, and failure to take remedial steps when learning of these breaches.
The 13 plaintiffs in the case, according to attorney Scott Rosenberg of the Legal Aid Society, include the Jamaican woman known by her initials, M.K.B., who was eight months pregnant when her husband threatened to kill her with an ice pick, and to feed rat poison to the children. Another plaintiff from Jamaica, “LW”, was raped by her husband when she did not comply with certain sexual demands. “Ms. Diongue” from Senegal was tortured for five hours by her sister's boyfriend who had just strangled and murdered her sister. “Al” from Bangladesh had a husband so jealous that he assumed that by going to work she was sleeping with other men; he hit her and threatened to kill her, and then threw her out of the home, but would not let her take their baby daughter.
What the findings in the case establish is that benefits are routinely denied to women such as these because the applicants lack documentation in the form of social security numbers, green cards or other indications of legal status. Yet, the law’s purpose is to provide for the health and safety of vulnerable women and children whose supposed protectors were instead their tormentors.
Training manuals and other materials omit abused or battered qualified applicants from lists of immigrants eligible for state public assistance and Medicaid, and for federal food stamps. Workers did not know how to deal with situations where some members of a family were eligible and others were not. They did not understand and were not trained to work with the specific abused immigrant population under the "battered alien" provision of law, which gives rights and benefits to abused women and children who are not legal residents of the United States to which they would not otherwise be entitled. Even when city and state policy makers were made aware of the rampant problems, "no meaningful corrective action was taken."
Welfare workers were repeatedly told in writing and at training sessions, of the requirement that applicants present a social security card, when that was in clear violation of law. The same applied to green cards, citizenship papers, which are also not required, and the special exemptions under the Violence Against Women Act. A question that benefit workers would have to answer was: "Does there appear to be a substantial connection between the battery or extreme cruelty and the need for the benefits sought?" Yet there were no standards to apply and thus no way to assure that the decisions by the staff were not subjective and arbitrary. Moreover, if the worker miscoded a file, say, checking off "citizen" when that was incorrect, the applicant could later be charged with fraud, worsening the problems she came to the center with.
In unambiguous language, the court cited the city with "deliberate indifference," found that policymakers knew "to a moral certainty" that its employees would confront the types of situations at issue and performed in a manner that violated law and the Consitution. The Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York has found that the plaintiffs and all others similarly situated were "erroneously denied public assistance, Medicaid benefits and/or food stamps in violation of their federal and state rights.”
The plaintiffs were represented by the Legal Aid Society (with Hughes Hubbard and Reed), the City of New York by Corporation Counsel, and the State by the Attorney General.
Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court JusticeÂ