Tallahassee, Florida - It's an agency Florida families turn when often unexpected circumstances create adversity at home. But the 10 News Investigators found that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) sometimes makes the situation worse for those families through clerical errors.
A viewer contacted 10 News this summer after she had received food stamps for the first time ever. Her husband had lost his job and her part-time work wasn't enough to keep food on the table for their 7-year-old son.
"It's embarrassing," Lesa Kurk said, of applying for food stamps. "You have to kind of swallow your pride."
The Kurk family of St. Petersburg was approved for - and received - $130 a week in food stamps, more than enough for her and her husband to focus on their new full-time jobs as job-seekers. Kurk said she used the money to feed her family healthy, fresh foods, and they often didn't spend their full allotment.
But after six months of the benefits, DCF discovered it had calculated the Kurks' benefits incorrectly. Because Lesa applied the day her husband was laid off, he had not yet begun to receive unemployment benefits. But when he did, the food stamp benefits were never re-calculated and reduced. DCF shared responsibility for the error with the family.
However, regardless of fault, DCF told the Kurks they needed to immediately repay the food stamp overpayments as well as Medicare protection the family never used. Because DCF in Florida merely operates the federal food stamp and Medicare programs, there would be no flexibility in repayment plans.
So the Kurks, still without a full-time job, was told it would have to immediately start repaying $2,585 in debt. The collections agency for DCF overpayments insisted upon $72 a month.
"$72 is going to be really hard, if at all possible for us," Kurk said. "It's just like a big ole' gift horse. They'll give it, but boy, will they take it back...and they won't wait."
The Kurks aren't alone, as DCF tried to recoup more than $21 million in food stamp overpayments in FY 2010-11, plus nearly $10 million in other types of benefit overpayments.
While DCF cites "non-fraud recipient error" as the leading cause of overpayments (49%), the agency admits internal errors led to 44% of overpayments. Potential fraud (8%) accounts for the other overpayments.
"Unfortunately, mistakes do happen, but it's a very, very small percentage," said DCF spokesperson Erin Gillespie. "Florida has been recognized as having the best food stamp accuracy processing rate in the nation for three years in a row."
Agency errors accounted for just 0.14% of the food stamp benefits Florida's DCF awarded in FY 2010-11 and the best-in-the-nation honor earned the agency $6 million in reward money.
But for the thousands of Florida families stuck with a agency overpayment, a bad situation becomes even worse with the lack of DCF forgiveness.
"That is the law, and we have to follow the law," said Gillespie.