Debit cards are given to less fortunate families in Connecticut by state officials to help them purchase food, but Eyewitness News learned that some people were using the cards at strip clubs, casinos and tobacco shops.
Sarah Tresselt of Meriden is enrolled in a program called EBT cards that allow cash withdrawals at any ATM. She said her state benefits are her lifeline.
"I'm a single mom. I don't receive child support. It's just me and my son. You know, I work full-time," Tresselt said. "I don't make that much so the money that I get for food. I usually stock up on my meats and vegetables and stuff. And now I'm behind on all my bills because I had to take that cash out of my pocket."
Because of confusion at the Connecticut Department of Social Services, Tresselt said the department sent a notice that stated she needed to prove she deserved to keep receiving the benefits.
Tresselt said she sent the information the department requested, but got a letter saying her food assistance and health insurance were being cut off.
She called and called but got nowhere with the state of Connecticut.
"Nobody would pick up," Tresselt said. "I was on hold four different times for 20 minutes apiece."
Fortunately, Tresselt's story has a happy ending, because her benefits were restored a bit more than a week ago.
"I called and told them, ya know, Channel 3 On Your Side for help, and within an hour I had three people call me back," Tresselt said.
Tresselt told the Eyewitness News I-Team that she relies on the EBT cards, which allows people to receive their benefits through a debit card. It's a program that the Eyewitness News I-Team has been investigating for some time.
At regular intervals, the state refills the card balance and then the money can be spent for necessities such as food or baby formula. Because it's a debit card, cash can also be withdrawn from any ATM.
So the Eyewitness News I-Team asked the state for a list of every ATM that was used in the third quarter of 2011. We spent hours combing through the data, and what we found was startling.
Among the thousands and thousands of withdrawals we reviewed was one at Club Chez, which is a bar and club in Hartford's south end that advertises specifically to gay customers. Someone went there and used their state benefits debit card to make a withdrawal at the bar.
People also used the card at smoke shops across the state to withdraw cash. Someone used their card at the Gold Club in Hartford, the Rockstar Gentlemen's Lounge in Wolcott and the Mardi Gras in East Windsor.
That's three strip clubs where the Eyewitness News I-Team found withdrawals of taxpayer funded financial assistance. And that's just in the three months of records that we reviewed.
We also found withdrawals at an ATM in a pawn shop in Waterbury as well as Flats Tattooing Ink in Groton and at New Britain Rock Cats Stadium where the minor league team plays. State benefits were accessed at Foxwoods Casino and at a bar at the Mohegan Sun.
"I looked at the same sample, and we found a very tiny, tiny minority of ATM machines being used that the public might deem questionable," said David Dearborn, who is the spokesman for Connecticut Department of Social Services.
There were 5,156 ATMs used by the 36,000-plus households that get these state debit cards. Eyewitness News I-Team's review of the records showed withdrawals at 53 locations that were questionable, which is about 1 percent.
Still, each of those 53 withdrawals, Connecticut taxpayer dollars that were designated for the needy, were being withdrawn at a place such as a strip club or a tattoo shop.
However, the Connecticut Department of Social Services said it's all perfectly legal.
"Right now, there's no laws or regulations saying where a cash or benefit assistance recipient can withdraw their benefits," Dearborn said. "The vast, vast majority are using appropriate locations, and there's no proof for example that someone who uses a cigar shop ATM is spending $20 on cigars, sometimes in a neighborhood there may not be an ATM machine that's handy. It doesn't look the greatest and the appearance is important to us, but currently there's no laws that we can utilize that would have us check that."
And without laws, there's no way for the Connecticut Department of Social Services can demand answers when someone uses an ATM at the Mardi Gras strip club in East Windsor, for example, when there's a bank ATM right across the street.
With her electric bill overdue, her pantry bare and her bank account empty, Tresselt said the questionable locations the Eyewitness News I-Team uncovered make her angry.
"It upsets me. I mean, I do my best to support my son on my own. But, ya know, it's nearly impossible," she said. "Just look at three months without me having it (EBT cards program), I ended up behind on my electric bill and stuff like that because I have to feed my son. That's my main priority - is taking care of my son. So that's why I think there is a lot of problems and there isn't a lot of money because of people like that, abusing the system."
Unless a new state law is passed, the Connecticut Department of Social Services said there's nothing they can do right now, but there is at least some change coming.
A federal law will require the Connecticut Department of Social Services to stop withdrawals at liquor stores, gambling establishments and adult entertainment bars by 2014, or the state will lose grant money from the federal government.
The Connecticut Department of Social Services said it plans to do it. However, the department is still figuring out how the limits would work.
To report fraud to the Connecticut Department of Social Services, click the following link.
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