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O.C. Sued in Alleged Abusive Call to Food Stamp Recipient


LOS ANGELES — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against Orange County and its social services agency Friday, claiming the agency condoned the abusive treatment of a woman receiving food stamps by one of its employees.

A man who identified himself as a social services worker left a long, vicious and profane message on the answering machine of Santa Ana resident Mara Anna Young after she challenged the agency's plans to cut her food stamp allowance.

"We think you are a lazy piece of s--- and that you really are a detriment to society and people like you stink," the caller said. "So get off your fat lazy a-- and get a job, you b----, because we're sick of you."

After playing a tape of the message, which ran slightly longer than one minute, ACLU legal director Mark Rosenbaum said the caller's tone reflected "an overall attitude of disdain and hostility toward the poor" in this age of welfare cuts. He said he and other attorneys who work with poor clients have heard similar tales for years, but never had proof.

Young, who was not at the press conference and who refused to talk to reporters, complained about the call to two supervisors at the agency and played the tape back to one of them, Rosenbaum said. According to the lawsuit, she was told "the voice mail message was probably just a joke left by one of Ms. Young's friends."

The lawsuit asks that the caller be identified and disciplined, that Young be assigned a new case worker and that the county implement a new training program for employees. It also asks for unspecified punitive damages.

County attorneys and officials, who had not received a copy of the lawsuit as of late Friday, would not comment on its specific charges. However, Bob Griffith, director of financial assistance for the county, said he doubted a county worker would use the sort of language contained in the message. "Obviously our direction to our staff is, regardless of what kind of treatment they're getting, to maintain a professional and businesslike demeanor," Griffith said. "We do allow staff, at the point that a client becomes abusive, to terminate the conversation, but not to respond in a like manner."

"Besides," he added, "it's incredibly stupid to leave that kind of message on an answering machine."

The caller did not identify himself by name, and Young did not recognize his voice, Rosenbaum said. The caller also said he was from the Department of Social Services Health and Welfare Agency, which is a state agency that oversees county-run welfare programs. The proper title for the county agency is the Social Services Agency.

Despite those incongruities, ACLU attorneys said they were convinced the caller was a county employee because he quoted directly from a letter that Young sent to the county in her appeal. And at the time that he called, Young was expecting to hear from a county eligibility worker.

Rosenbaum said the caller could be easily identified if the county cooperates. "You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this person out," Rosenbaum said.

Griffith noted the county employs more than 1,000 eligibility workers, about 460 of whom work with food stamp recipients. Another 200 to 300 supervisors and clerks are involved in the eligibility and appeals process, he said.

He also said the state agency would have been involved in Young's appeal, and that state employees would have had access to her letter.

ACLU attorney Dan Tokaji, who is directly handling Young's case, said, "If this was a state worker, it would be even more shocking because they're the ones making the decisions on these appeals." He added, "If we develop reasons to believe that they're somehow implicated, we would name them in a heartbeat."

According to the complaint, Young, who is 58 and a U.S. citizen, lives alone in a rented room in Santa Ana. She began receiving $119 in monthly food stamp benefits in July 1996, a month after she was laid off from a telemarketing job at a Santa Ana company that promotes ostrich farming.

Two months later, Young's benefit was cut to $34 worth of food stamps a month. She appealed, and the decision was reversed in November. In the meantime, the county cut her benefits completely. Young appealed the termination, and in mid-January, a state administrative law judge again found in her favor.

The county appealed that decision. After researching the law at a library, Young sent a two-page letter contesting the decision, using legal terms such as "malfeasance and misfeasance."

The obscenity-filled call was made nine days later, and referred to many of the legal terms used in the letter. The caller went on to say, "Ah, Ms. Young, you're so full of s---. Why don't you get off your fat, f------, lazy a-- and get a job. You know, the taxpayers like me really resent the s--- out of you. What makes you so special that you don't have to get up and go to work? You just work the system and take and take and take. People like you are garbage. We don't need you in our society."

Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Lisa Richardson.

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