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States Should Use New Requirement to Improve TANF for Domestic Violence Survivors

The omnibus federal funding bill for fiscal year 2022 enacted last month includes a new state requirement to train Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) caseworkers and other agency personnel in issues and procedures pertaining to domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking. States should use the new requirement to make TANF more accessible and effective in serving domestic violence survivors.

By March 23, 2023, states must certify that they will comply with the following requirements in their TANF state plans:

  • Establish and enforce standards and procedures to inform TANF applicants of state assistance available for survivors of domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking.
  • Train TANF caseworkers and other agency personnel in: (1) the dynamics of domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and stalking; (2) state procedures designed to prevent domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence and assist survivors; and (3) procedures to ensure the confidentiality of survivors’ personal information.
  • In the 42 states (including Washington, D.C.) that have adopted the Family Violence Option (see below), establish and enforce standards and procedures to screen for and identify domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and stalking. States that have adopted the option also must provide TANF applicants and participants with information about the assistance available for survivors.

Studies consistently show that TANF participants have experienced higher rates of domestic violence than the general population. Although research challenges such as underreporting make knowing the exact figures difficult, most studies have found that 50 to 60 percent of women participating in TANF have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives, compared to about 30 percent of all U.S. women. Research also finds that economic hardship and domestic violence are linked and that cash assistance can help survivors escape abusive relationships and rebuild their lives following violence.

The Family Violence Option (FVO), part of the 1996 law that created TANF, gives states more flexibility to help survivors rebuild their lives by accommodating the challenges they face when leaving an abusive situation. The FVO allows states to provide families with waivers from certain program requirements as needed. For example, a domestic violence survivor may need to be excused from work and job training requirements so they can find a new place to live, enroll their children in new schools, open a bank account, or attend to their families’ physical and behavioral health needs. Similarly, TANF applicants or participants may fear that engaging with the child support system could put them in danger.

However, very few families are actually granted waivers, data from the Department of Health and Human Services show. Given the high incidence of domestic violence among TANF recipients, this suggests there is substantial room for improvement in identifying survivors and making TANF work better for them.

In addition, research demonstrates that TANF falls short in providing survivors with adequate assistance and trauma-informed services that prioritize their dignity and safety. As a result, TANF agencies can sew distrust with survivors and even retraumatize them. In a survey by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, a majority of domestic violence advocates indicated that survivors often avoid disclosing violence to TANF caseworkers out of concern that TANF agencies don’t handle personal information in an appropriate way to maintain survivors’ privacy and safety if their abusers try to locate them. In the same survey, advocates reported that survivors often have difficulty receiving waivers from TANF work requirements and child support enforcement requirements, which in turn can endanger a survivor who may be stalked at work by an abuser or whose location may be disclosed to an abuser by child support enforcement.

Most survey respondents also indicated that TANF personnel need more training, especially on the dynamics of domestic violence, the impact of trauma on survivors, and barriers survivors face when trying to access services. Further, respondents noted that limited cross-training between domestic violence services and TANF agencies causes difficulties for survivors, many of whom need help from an advocate to navigate TANF and other public benefit programs.

In an earlier survey from 2010, a number of advocates stated that TANF agencies’ processes for screening and identifying domestic violence, such as interviewing applicants in front of an abuser, often retraumatize survivors and prevent them from accessing assistance. Advocates also stated that screening processes often seem aimed at disqualifying applicants, rather than identifying survivors and connecting them to the help they need.

Training TANF caseworkers and other agency personnel to understand issues and procedures pertaining to domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, as well as the landscape of assistance available to survivors, will equip TANF agencies to better serve survivors and their families. Further, notifying TANF applicants and participants of the services available to them can encourage more survivors to apply for assistance. Expanding the state’s use of the FVO can help ensure that the TANF program is workable for survivors.

But as states consider how to meet the new federal requirements, they should also think systematically about broader changes to make TANF more effective at serving survivors, such as ensuring that they receive needed income support, connections to services and supports (such as entities that can help them get legal assistance or safe and stable housing), and FVO waivers when needed. Working with state, local, and nonprofit entities with expertise in serving survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and other forms of abuse, states have an opportunity to find new ways to leverage TANF to address survivors’ needs.