By Stephanie Harp 

On behalf of Sara Halsey of Augusta and Susan Kiralis of Vassalboro, Maine Equal Justice has filed a lawsuit against Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, Inc., which runs ASPIRE, the education and training part of Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Maine Equal Justice has fielded numerous complaints about Families Forward, Fedcap’s ASPIRE program that is “designed and implemented to meet the existing and emerging needs of the people of Maine,” according to the Fedcap website.  

“What Maine Equal Justice has heard over the last six years are complaints from parents around the state who are required to use Fedcap,” said MEJ attorney Oriana Farnham. “They’re being pushed into low-wage jobs when they’re interested in pursuing training or education that would qualify them for higher-wage jobs. People have said they’re not provided interpreters when they need them or that Fedcap staff aren’t comfortable using interpreters. Language access barriers have prevented people from making the most of the benefits they’re eligible for in ASPIRE. They’ve struggled accessing benefits they’re eligible for, such as money for childcare and transportation. Fedcap has been, from our perspective, a pretty bad gatekeeper. They haven’t told people about these benefits. People have to struggle to get access to them.” 

Fedcap’s contract, which began in 2016 under former Gov. Paul LePage, expires in September and Maine Department of Health and Human Services has requested proposals to run ASPIRE until 2031. Fedcap is bidding again, said Farnham, who represents the plaintiffs. They are speaking out about their experiences to help others, “so Maine can make the changes that we need,” she said.  

Sara Halsey

In 2016, “I was years into a pretty significant battle with substance use disorder,” said Sara Halsey. “I had just lost my best friend of 15 years to a drug overdose, and I was pretty much in a downward spiral.” Two weeks after her friend’s death, Halsey learned she was pregnant. “I had nothing, and nowhere to go, and no one to turn to.” With a housing voucher from having been in a domestic violence shelter, she applied for state services. Being pregnant, she wasn’t required to participate in ASPIRE activities until her daughter was a year old. After that, Fedcap wanted her to find a job. Halsey quickly learned the stress of locating a trusted childcare provider for her daughter and being in the real world again were too much.  

“It was really difficult and turned into another bad time in my life,” she said. Difficulty accessing Fedcap services included not being told about what should have been available. “Their goals and plans for me were not working and did not coincide with the goals that I had for myself. After bumping heads with them multiple times…I reached out to Maine Equal Justice. I knew right along that this was not right, this should not be happening.” 

After hearing numerous such complaints, MEJ concluded that Fedcap was inconsistent about what opportunities were offered, Farnham said. “Some Fedcap workers wanted to do right by them, and some were less good, but really it felt like a systemic problem.”  

When case workers changed, requirements changed, said Halsey. “All of a sudden you have to do something else. They’re probably not trained to be dealing with people who have trauma and mental health and substance use disorder, and all the real world things that you’re going to find with people who are facing poverty.” 

Susan Kiralis found Halsey’s story familiar. “I know they’re not psychologists…but I felt like if they would work in this environment, they should be able to understand at least the culture of poverty. They should be able to see that a woman in my age group is dealing with a lot of other stuff. I feel like the staff should be able to say, ‘This person is going through a lot.’ A lot of my staff was just like, ‘Eh, whatever.’ ”  

Kiralis enrolled in an ASPIRE teen parent program in Waterville when she was only 16, and its  resources helped her finish high school. She moved to Lewiston, took college classes, held a residential job with at-risk teenagers, and was self-sufficient. When she inherited a house in Vassalboro, she moved again, working as an overnight youth counselor. She married, had a second child, and the marriage ended. Kiralis had to leave the job she’d held for eight years to stay home with her daughter, who had multiple health problems and was in severe pain. Leaving the job by choice disqualified her for unemployment.  

While pursuing medical care for her daughter, she took classes part time at the University of Maine at Augusta. “Someone from UMA had just met with someone from Fedcap. I was really excited.” With services from ASPIRE, she thought she could complete her bachelor’s degree in 15 months. “It felt like my second chance to go back to school while I still had a child under school age.”  

But accessing services proved difficult, just like for Halsey. “I don’t think the staff expected me to have been following up, on point and very serious about my time,” Kiralis said. “Now I had my own timeline – for my family, my finances, for my career. I wanted to be able to make money because I do have real bills to take care of, with the hope that this is all I’m going to have to sacrifice – 15 months – and then get my daughter into school, and [I’ll have] a career.” She majored in justice studies, to work in rehabilitation for people coming from the prison system

Susan Kiralis

By the time she’d requested help, “I was at my lowest, my family was falling apart, I had a child with this illness that we couldn’t figure out.” She knew she needed education to get a better job to take care of two children. But Kiralis felt Fedcap was discouraging her from pursuing a bachelor’s degree, “like I was thinking too big,” she said. “It just felt like a propeller. So I literally had to remove myself from the Fedcap system. I said, ‘I’m going to figure out my last six classes on my own.’ It took more energy for me to fight for the support than to get the support.” 

Halsey also fought for services while pursuing education. “I woke up and started working on myself,” she said. She applied for financial aid and signed up for classes at UMA within weeks. “It never happens that quickly, but it just all came into place.” In the two-year, 32-credit hour, substance abuse rehabilitation technician program, she achieved Dean’s List while working an overnight job and caring for her daughter and four other children.  

In October 2021, she passed the state board exam on her first try. She is now waiting for state approval of her drug counselor’s license, then certification, and has started a bachelor’s degree in mental health and human services with an addiction studies concentration. “I pursued school on my own, went after an education on my own, and I am where I am on my own, despite the obstacles that have been put in front of me,” she said. She wants to become a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or LADC.  

“Education is really basic in the ASPIRE program,” said MEJ’s Farnham. “Someone doesn’t have to get a bachelor’s or even associate’s degree. They could use the opportunity to become an electrician or another trade. The sky’s the limit if people find programs that fit their aspirations. It’s not just that Fedcap has said no to college, but has discouraged people from all training programs.” 

Resources can help people break the cycle of poverty, if they are used effectively, Halsey said. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with families coming from very different and very real-life situations that desperately need help to get back on their feet.”  

Helping others is the impetus behind the lawsuit – for Halsey, Kiralis, and Maine Equal Justice. “To improve the program for the future, and to make it a program that families can count on and turn to when they’re in need, to build a more economically secure future for their families,” Farnham said. “It’s not about [the plaintiffs]. It’s about Sara and Susan telling other people, ‘Hey, we see you. This happened to us and it’s not OK.’ The public needs to call attention to these issues so more people know where they can turn for help. There are so many people who don’t know what their rights are, who never contact MEJ or Pine Tree [Legal Assistance], and are not accessing what the ASPIRE program has to offer.”  

In response to a request for comment, Fedcap’s Maine Executive Director Serena Powell submitted the following statement: “Families Forward in partnership with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, helps families to take steps toward greater economic well-being. Since the program’s start in 2017, we have offered career development services through a statewide network of 1,099 high-quality not-for-profit partners to 16,654 individuals and secured 11,733 jobs. Our services help participants access job training, education, and supportive services such as stable housing, nutritious food, immigration assistance, mental health counseling, and substance use treatment.