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By Patricia R. Cole, Ph.D.

Federal and state laws and policies have made major changes in the welfare system during the past five years. The overarching goal of welfare reform at the federal and state levels is to get people off the welfare rolls and into work.

Changes in the welfare system affect low-income families in terms of the length of time they are eligible to receive certain cash benefits and the requirements they must meet while they are on welfare rolls. In the "new" welfare system, recipients are supposed to get support services and other types of assistance they need to make a successful transition from welfare to work and financial self sufficiency.

Both federal and state laws recognize that domestic violence may keep women* from gaining and maintaining employment so that they have difficulty meeting certain welfare requirements. Additionally, their efforts to meet the requirements may result in an escalation of the violence as the batterer reacts to the woman's move toward financial independence from him. Federal and state laws and policies allow welfare recipients ho are victims of domestic violence to get temporary exemptions from certain requirements if meeting the requirements would jeopardize their safety or if the violence would keep them from being successful in meeting the requirements.

The following information highlights part of the federal and Texas laws, especially if they address welfare recipients who are victims of domestic violence.


Federal Laws

General Provisions

The federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 made many changes in the nation's welfare laws. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. The following key provisions in the federal welfare reform law have an impact on all TANF recipients, including those affected by domestic violence:

* Because most custodial parents in TANF families and most victims of domestic violence are women, throughout this discussion they are referred to as females and noncustodial parents and perpetrators of domestic violence are referred to as males. Most of the information and suggestions would apply if the gender roles were reversed.
  • 5 year lifetime limit for receiving TANF benefits

    TANF is no longer an entitlement. Prior to the federal welfare reform law, families could remain on TANF rolls for as long as they met the eligibility requirements. Now families can receive TANF for a total of 5 years. States can allow up to 20 percent of TANF recipients to exceed the 5-year limit if they have serious, long-term problems that prevent them from working.

  • Adults receiving TANF must be employed or in a work-related activity within two years of their enrollment in TANF.

  • Collection of child support for TANF families is a high priority. Custodial parents are required to assist in establishing paternity (if necessary), locating the noncustodial parent, and aiding as needed in collecting child support.

  • States are required to have increasingly high percentages of their TANF enrollees working or in work-related activities (called participation rates). For single-parent families, in 1999 this was 35 percent; it is 40 percent for 2000, 45 percent for 2001, and 50 percent for 2002. States that do not reach these participation rates are penalized by reductions in federal dollars.

  • States will no longer get federal TANF funds based on the number of individuals or families enrolled. Through 2002, states will be given the same amount of money (called a block grant) they received in 1995, even as the number of people served through TANF drops.

Federal Family Violence Option

The federal welfare reform law acknowledges that TANF recipients who are domestic violence victims may not be able to meet TANF work requirements because of the effects of this violence on their lives. The federal law allows states to adopt policies and procedures (called the Family Violence Option) that are meant to protect women in violent partnerships and assure that they are not treated unfairly in the TANF system. States are allowed to give TANF recipients temporary exemptions from TANF requirements that may cause domestic violence to escalate, that make it more difficult for them to escape violence, or that result in unfair sanctions against women who fail to meet requirements due to domestic violence. The intent of the Family Violence is to protect women and to assist them in dealing with the violence so that it does not continue to be a barrier to their leaving welfare and going to work.

Federal TANF Regulations

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issue regulations for implementation of the welfare reform law in April 1999. The regulations encourage states to adopt the Family Violence Option. They also assure that states will not be penalized financially for not meeting required participation rates if the failure results from exemptions given to TANF recipients due to domestic violence. The regulations state that people with expertise in domestic violence should assist in determining if a woman needs an exemption from specified requirements because of domestic violence and in making a service plan that fits the woman's needs. Domestic violence good cause exemptions must be reviewed every six months.


States are allowed considerable flexibility in their laws and policies to implement welfare reform. Each state submits its own State Plan for federal approval. A State Plan must include a maximum lifetime limit no longer than 5 years for receiving TANF, although a state can choose to have shorter time limits. States also must reach the participation rates established by the federal government to avoid financial penalties.

Texas laws and policies are based on a "work first" philosophy. "Work first" means that welfare reform implementation strategies are to be built around the primary goal of getting TANF recipients employed or engaged in an approved work-related activity as quickly as possible once they are certified to receive TANF.

Texas Laws

General Provisions

In 1995, the Texas Legislature enacted a state welfare reform law. After the federal law was passed in 1996, Texas received federal approval for its State Plan, which was based largely on the state legislation passed in 1995.

The Texas Legislature enacted a law that sets state time limits for receiving TANF on the basis of each recipient's education level and work experience. As is allowed under federal law, Texas' time limits are shorter than the federal maximum of 5 years. Texas time limits for receipt of TANF are:

  • 12 months for individuals with a high school diploma, GED, or higher education, or with 18 months of recent work experience;

  • 24 months for individuals who have completed 3 years of high school or have at least 6 months of recent work experience;

  • 36 months for individuals with less than 3 years of high school and less than 6 months of recent work experience.

When families reach the state time limits but have not reached the federal lifetime cap of 5 years, the parent in the family household cannot receive TANF benefits in Texas for 5 years. After 5 years, the parent may be eligible to receive TANF in Texas so long as they have not reached the federal lifetime cap. Only parents or adults caregivers are denied benefits when they reach the state (but not federal) time limits; children can continue to receive benefits.

Texas law requires all TANF applicants to sign a Personal Responsibility Agreement as part of the eligibility certification for receiving benefits. By signing this agreement, the adult applicant for TANF agrees to do the following:

  • participate in employment services (administered through the local Workforce Development Boards),

  • cooperate with child support requirements to establish paternity and obtain child support from the noncustodial parent,

  • remain employed and not quit a job without good cause,

  • ensure that children get medical checkups regularly and that their required immunizations are current,

  • ensure that each child receiving TANF attends school regularly, unless the child has a high school diploma or GED,

  • attend parenting classes, if directed,

  • ensure that each parent or responsible relative of a child receiving TANF does not use, sell, or possess controlled substances or abuse alcohol after signing this agreement, and

  • truthfully complete the TANF application process; report changes in address, income, assets, and family size; and keep or reschedule all appointments.

All adult TANF recipients are required to participate in employment services through their local workforce agency as soon as they are certified as TANF-eligible unless they receive an exemption during the eligibility determination process at their TDHS office. Exemptions from employment services participation can be granted by TDHS for a person who is:

  • under age 16, or over age 59;

  • a mother or relative caring for a child under 3 years of age (note: this changes 9/1/2000 to caring for a child under 2 years of age, and 9/1/2001 to caring for a child under 1 year of age);

  • needed at home to care for an ill or disabled household member;

  • employed 30 hours per week;

  • living too far from available employment or training resources; or

  • temporary or permanently disabled.

Exemptions from participation in employment services for any of the above reasons can be granted during the TDHS eligibility interview or later if the individual's circumstances chance. TDHS eligibility workers cannot exempt applicants from participating in employment services due to domestic violence. That must be done by the workforce agency.

TANF applicants and recipients can receive good cause exemptions from the child support collection requirement under any of three conditions:

  • If the child was conceived as a result of rape or incest,

  • If collecting child support could result in physical or emotional harm to the child or responsible adult; or

  • If the child is to be given up for adoption.

The exemption from child support requirements must be granted by TDHS. If no exemption is granted, TDHS sends the case to the Attorney General's office where child support enforcement procedures begin. Unless exempted from child support collection by TDHS, the custodial parent is expected to cooperate with the collection of child support and will receive financial sanctions if she is noncooperative.

Texas Family Violence Option

In 1997, the Texas Legislature passed a law endorsing the intent of the federal Family Violence Option. Texas has included the Family Violence Option in its federally approved State Plan. The Texas law directed the Texas Department of Human Services (TDHS), the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), and the Office of the Attorney General, Child Support Division (OAG) to adopt procedures that will allow certain TANF requirements to be waived (temporary exemptions granted) or modified for a victim of family violence if meeting the requirement would:

  • Adversely affect the individual's ability to attain financial independence,

  • Make it more difficult for the individual to escape family violence, or

  • Place the individual at greater risk for additional family violence.

The requirements that may be waived include time limits, child support enforcement, paternity establishments, and work activity. In Texas, waivers of requirements are called "good cause exemptions".

The Texas law further states that procedures to consider good cause exemptions from requirements due to domestic violence must provide that:

  • A requirement may be waived or modified only after a case-by-case determination and documentation of good cause and only to the extent necessary considering an individual's circumstances;

  • A requirement may not be waived or modified for an individual for a period longer than one year;

  • The appropriate agency shall refer an individual to a family violence program if necessary for assistance in developing a safety plan to protect the individual from further violence; and

  • Confidentiality of information about the identification and location of victims of family violence and their children is maintained when necessary to prevent additional family violence.

The law additionally stipulates that agencies may not deny an individual access to education, training, employment, or other services on the basis of family violence.

State Agency Regulations and Policies Related to Domestic Violence

TDHS determined that its existing rules are sufficient, since they allow exemptions from requirements relative to child support collection and paternity establishment if domestic violence poses a danger for the client or the children. TDHS accepts as documentation of domestic violence a variety of reports; including police or court reports, medical reports, and psychological or counseling reports, or a statement from a domestic violence service agency.

TWC adopted a rule to allow temporary good cause exemptions from work participation requirements if domestic violence poses a threat to safety or interferes with meeting requirements. The good cause exemptions must be reviewed every three months and can be renewed for a total of one year. The TANF recipient is expected to take actions to overcome domestic violence as an employment barrier during the exemption period. TWC regulations accept the client's word that domestic violence threatens her safety if other documentation is not readily available.

The OAG has developed procedures for protecting confidentiality of information about the location of individuals through the state and federal child support registries, if revealing information about their location would place them at risk of domestic violence. The OAG accepts police or court documents and will accept the client's affidavit attesting to domestic violence.

During the spring of 2000, TDHS will provide basic training for all its local officer supervisory and direct services staff about domestic violence and the good cause exemption from child support collection that TDHS can grant. TDHS also will try to arrange for TANF applicants or recipients requesting a good cause exemption from child support enforcement due to domestic violence to talk with a person in a domestic violence service program as quickly as possible after the exemption is requested. TDHS will accept the recommendation of the domestic violence service program as verification of domestic violence and of the need for a good cause exemption from child support enforcement. TDHS also can excuse women from attending the Workforce Orientation Session that is part of the eligibility determination process if attending puts the woman or her children at risk of domestic violence. The woman needs to request that she be excused from attending, and the same verification is needed as for a good cause exemption from child support enforcement.

Dr. Patricia Cole, as part of a grant with the Texas Department of Human Services, January 2000, wrote this article. It was originally distributed at the "Challenges and Opportunities for Domestic Violence Victims in Welfare and Related Programs - How Can Advocates Help? A Conference for Texas Advocates for Victims of Domestic Violence," January 24-25, 2000. It was sponsored by the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Austin, Texas, 512/407-9020 (voice and fax), http://www.ncdsv.org.

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