Rule change could punish household members of welfare recipients who do drugs
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The state Department of Workforce Services has proposed a rule change that could penalize all household members of welfare recipients who refuse to take drug tests or get drug treatment if they test positive.

House Bill 155, which takes effect August 1, can strip cash benefits providedthrough the Utah Family Employment Program from a recipient using drugs. An administrative rule change proposed by DWS to implement the legislation would also prevent the recipient's household members, including spouses, from receiving any benefits. There are currently 60 two-parent households in the program.

Geoffrey Landward, DWSgeneral counsel, said not every state enforces an entire household penalty for a failed drug test, but Utah decided to implement the strict punishment as an extra incentive to remain employed.

"That's the level that we chose hoping it would keep people motivated," Landward said.

The department will accept public feedback on the rule change through 5 p.m. on Thursday.

Gina Cornia, executive director for Utahns Against Hunger, said the consequences for violating a drug test are excessive and the policy is just one more hoop to jump through meant to "punish" people who are poor.

"I think sanctioning the entire family is too punitive," Cornia said. "Giving somebody a choice on whether to go into drug treatment or not being dependent on receipt of that money is pretty harsh."

The new law requires welfare recipients to fill out a substance abuse questionnaire. If the survey shows a "reasonable likelihood" for drug use, a drug test is required. A test failure would result in mandatory drug treatment for a minimum of 60 days.

Refusal to take the initial drug test, to enter and complete treatment, or a positive test for drugs while in treatment or at its completion can result in a loss of benefits. Under the rule, cash benefits would be removed for the recipient's entire household for three months on the first offense and 12 months for subsequent test failures in the year after the first failed test.

Helen Thatcher, manager of Utah's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program, said the 12 month penalty is the "strictest sanction we have" and is meant to keep an estimated 2,700 program beneficiaries drug-free and working.

"The idea is to identify them as early as we can and then to hold them accountable for going into treatment and remaining clean," Thatcher said.

As of October 2011, 29 states had introduced or adopted drug testing laws for TANF beneficiaries, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Each drug test is estimated to cost around $40, according to a May 2011 report by the Iowa Policy Research Organization, bringing the total annual cost of one drug test per person enrolled in the single-parent program of TANF to around $108,000.

State Rep. Brad Wilson, who sponsored the bill, said the "common sense" legislation is meant to help, not penalize Utahns who want to get a job and be better parents.

"We don't want kids to not have what they need, but it's primarily a parent's responsibility to care for their kids, not the government's," Wilson said.

brensmith@sltrib.com