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Lawsuit alleges that a state contractor didn't supply two women with adequate childcare support

Two Maine women have filed a lawsuit with the assistance of Maine Equal Justice alleging that a contractor under a state benefit program failed to provide them with adequate support services.

Since 2016, Fedcap has administered Maine's ASPIRE program, which provides services such as job training and education to recipients of the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. But in the complaint, the two women say that Fedcap failed to promptly make them aware of a program, called Parents as Scholars, to assist them with costs such as childcare and transportation while in school.

In the complaint, one of the plaintiffs, Sara Halsey, said that when she entered the program as a new mother in substance use recovery, Fedcap threatened her benefits if she didn't find childcare and begin applying for jobs — even though a medical provider recommended that she delay the job search.

Halsey also alleges that Fedcap failed to submit timely requests to the state so her childcare costs would be "promptly paid," and also required that she work a part-time job while in school to get childcare, even though that wasn't a program requirement. Halsey said that she hopes the suit can help other families avoid those experiences.

"It's important that we really focus on those supports and resources and make sure that they're being used appropriately," Halsey said.

Oriana Farnham, an attorney with Maine Equal Justice who represents the women, said that while education is an option in the ASPIRE program, many parents have reported to her organization that Fedcap has steered them away from those options.

"And instead encouraged them to apply for jobs -- often, low-wage jobs that often don't pay enough to support their families," she said.

In 2019, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services wrote a letter to Fedcap raising several issues, including that participants did not receive timely responses to phone calls and emails, and reported a "lack of professionalism and sensitivity in communication with Fedcap staff."

In response, Fedcap wrote that it "remains committed to serving the communities of Maine and successfully carrying out the requirements of our contractual agreements." The organization noted steps it had taken to respond to concerns and was open to feedback from the state to continue to improve.

Serena Powell, the executive director of Fedcap's Families Forward program in Maine, didn't directly comment on the lawsuit in an emailed statement, but said that the program has assisted more than 16,000 individuals and "supports Maine’s effort to remain in full compliance with federal requirements."