| Practical Guidance and Accessible Information |
One out of every three residents in Philadelphia currently lives at or below the federal poverty line. With government-funded legal services at their lowest level since the creation of legal services agencies, poor and low-income individuals often have nowhere to turn with civil legal problems.
In an effort to provide practical information to help individuals maneuver their way through the maze of the legal system, the Women's Law Project operates a telephone counseling and consumer education service. This service, which responds to more than 7,000 inquiries per year, is unique in the Philadelphia area. It provides free, in-depth information on legal procedures and laws relating to family law and discrimination in employment, housing and credit. Its family law component provides information about child support, custody, separation and divorce, domestic violence and the legal rights of lesbian and gay parents.
The WLP has also written and published Family Violence and the Child Custody Process: A Legal Guide for Protecting Children. Written for parents and care givers, this book explains and clarifies domestic violence law as it intersects with the child custody process. For many women, issues around child custody are the key to leaving an abusive household, but the vast majority of those in need cannot afford a lawyer. As a result, more than seventy percent of families using Philadelphia Family Court are unrepresented.
This handbook includes extensive information on Pennsylvania state laws concerning family violence and child custody, as well as Philadelphia Family Court procedures and forms, and serves as a resource guide to social services in Philadelphia. It has been distributed throughout the city to individuals and social service organizations to help parents and care givers navigate through the complex legal system.
| WLP's Role in the Welfare Debate |
The Women's Law Project threw itself into the welfare debate in 1995, when the Pennsylvania legislature came close to enacting a "family cap" limiting welfare benefits for women who have children when they are poor. Susan Frietsche, a staff attorney for the Women?s Law Project, mobilized a broad coalition of pro-choice and welfare rights organizations to keep this provision out of Pennsylvania's welfare laws.
< The WLP teamed up with Dechert Price & Rhoads, Community Legal Services and Professor Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania and brought two class actions to challenge other welfare provisions harming women and children. Success Against All Odds v. Department of Public Welfare was a state court challenge to the welfare department's decision to eliminate the child support pass-through, the $50 per family per month child support payment that low-income families are permitted to keep. The welfare department retains the remainder of child support paid for children on welfare to reimburse itself for the cost of the welfare grant.
The WLP won a preliminary injunction in Commonwealth Court, saving millions of dollars in child support for 36,000 poor families each year. While the litigation was pending, the Pennsylvania legislature took up a bill that contained a hidden provision that would have ended the pass-through and mooted out the lawsuit. Acting quickly, the WLP and its allies descended upon Harrisburg, pointing out the harm that poor children would suffer from losing an average of fourteen percent of their total monthly income, a result never intended by the sponsors of the bill. The Pennsylvania legislature amended the bill specifically to direct the welfare department to continue to pay the child support pass-through--a victory won both through the courts and through the legislature.
Like fourteen other states, Pennsylvania adopted a one-year welfare residency requirement providing that for the first year of residence in Pennsylvania, new state residents could not receive any additional welfare benefits than the amount they would have received in the state where they previously lived. The WLP and its co-counsel filed a class action in federal court, Maldonado v. Houstoun, claiming that the residency requirement violated new residents' constitutional right to travel. After winning a preliminary injunction and successfully defending that injunction in the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the WLP filed an amicus curiae brief in Saenz v. Roe, a case arising out of California involving the same legal issues. The amicus brief, submitted on behalf of sixty-six organizations across the country serving domestic violence survivors, stressed the severe harm that welfare residency requirements inflict on battered women who have fled great distances to escape life-threatening violence. To deprive these survivors of full cash benefits for their first year in their new state would condemn them and their children to a life of poverty or drive them back to their abusers.
On May 17, 1999, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an unexpectedly sweeping 7-2 decision striking down California?s one-year welfare residency requirement, and several days later, the high court denied certiorari in the Pennsylvania case. The majority opinion, written by Justice Stevens and joined by Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer, held that the Fourteenth Amendment's privileges and immunities clause guarantees the right of newly arrived citizens to the same privileges and immunities enjoyed by other citizens of their new state: "Citizens of the United States, whether rich or poor, have the right to choose to be citizens of the State wherein they reside." U.S. Const., Amdt. 14, §1. The States, however, do not have any right to select their citizens." The court determined that laws disadvantaging new residents must therefore be subjected to strict scrutiny and the most searching constitutional review, and that the one-year residency requirement did not survive this test.