August 2, 2016: New Hampshire Legal Assistance wins Supreme Court appeal on behalf of low-income parents of children with disabilities

Federal assistance for children with severe disabilities is designed to support their special – and often expensive – needs. It shouldn’t be diverted to meet the basic needs of other family members. But that’s what New Hampshire expected low-income families with children with disabilities to do, until a successful challenge by two mothers represented by New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

Today, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously ruled that federal Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, for a child with a disability cannot be counted as household income available to an entire family if that family applies for state benefits. This decision invalidates a state rule instituted as a result of state budget cuts in 2011-12.

Chief Justice Linda Dalianis, writing for the court, held that “the rule violates the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution,” which “does not permit the State to redirect federal benefits” under the rule.

“Under the plain language of the [federal] regulations, a child’s SSI benefits may be spent only on that child’s current maintenance, i.e., the child’s food, shelter, clothing, medical care and personal comfort items,” Chief Justice Dalianis wrote. “Congress intended the SSI program… to provide disabled children with the minimum amount necessary to satisfy their basic needs.”

“New Hampshire’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) is the most basic, fundamental lifeline for families in desperate need,” said Ruth Heintz of New Hampshire Legal Assistance. “We are so happy, for our clients and for every other family struggling to care for a child with a disability, that the Supreme Court recognized the impossible dilemma this rule created.”

Carrie Hendrick filed a suit against the state in June 2014 to challenge New Hampshire’s practice of treating the SSI of poor children with severe disabilities as income available to the whole family for the purpose of determining eligibility for the state TANF program. Ms. Hendrick and her six children were then forced to survive on the SSI payments meant to cover the special needs of two children.

Ms. Hendrick lost $850 of monthly support for her family because of the new policy. Thanks to her advocates at New Hampshire Legal Assistance who worked for more than two years on her case, she and other low-income parents of children with disabilities will have access to this crucial safety net again.

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Upon invitation from the Court, the U.S. Department of Justice submitted a powerful amicus brief supporting the mothers’ case, noting the rule change was financially motivated, as the Legislature sought to reduce TANF spending by more than $9 million by terminating or reducing benefits to more than 1,500 households.

The Disability Rights Center – NH also submitted an amicus brief in the case on its own behalf and on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Special Education Administrators and the National Disability Rights Network; all three organizations supported the mothers’ position.

“Families caring for children with disabilities often face immense obstacles to financial security, including extraordinary costs of care and loss of parental income,” said Andrew Milne, staff attorney with DRC-NH. “Today, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has restored the rights of thousands of children with disabilities and their families to receive the full benefit of two programs that are crucial to helping them overcome these obstacles and meet their basic needs.”

New Hampshire Legal Assistance attorneys will work to ensure that the Supreme Court’s decision is properly implemented.

“Ruth Heintz, Lititgation Director Kay Drought and many others did admirable, important work on behalf of our clients and the many low-income families across the state who will be positively impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision,” said NHLA Executive Director Lynne Parker.

“But the work is not yet done. Now, we will seek to ensure that indigent children with disabilities actually receive the benefit of the SSI the way Congress intended.”