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 Because it's a debit card, cash can also be withdrawn from any ATM.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.
Copyright 2012 WFSB (MeredithCorporation). All rights reserved.
I-Team investigates missing items at Connecticut prisonsI-Team investigates missing well pumps on UConn campusYou bought it, They lost itHidden camera record trespassing at abandoned cabin in ManchesterStudentsMore>>
Wednesday, April 23 2014 3:55 PM EDT2014-04-23 19:55:55 GMT
Two Roseburg parents who took their 2-year-old to the emergency room because she was acting abnormally have been arrested after tests showed methamphetamine in her system. Sheriff's Office spokesmanMore >
Two Roseburg parents who took their 2-year-old to the emergency room because she was acting abnormally have been arrested after tests showed methamphetamine in her system.More >
Wednesday, April 23 2014 8:11 PM EDT2014-04-24 00:11:21 GMT
A man and his girlfriend are on the run after deputies said he crashed a stolen car and she helped him get away. Marion County deputies were called to the 4500 block of Harlan Drive Northeast in SalemMore >
A man and his girlfriend are on the run after deputies said he crashed a stolen car in a Salem neighborhood and she helped him get away.More >
Wednesday, April 23 2014 5:32 PM EDT2014-04-23 21:32:57 GMT
Two days after a Forest Grove couple found a scrapbook full of old photos in a laundry room wall, FOX 12 viewers helped track down the scrapbook's owner hundreds of miles away. Avamarie Cowles said sheMore >
Mystery solved: A scrapbook found in a laundry room wall at a Forest Grove home belongs to a 76-year-old woman who lives 260 miles away.More >
Wednesday, April 23 2014 10:00 PM EDT2014-04-24 02:00:22 GMT
A Portland city employee is accused of accepting cash for tipping off a tow truck driver about abandoned vehicles as part of a major auto theft investigation. Barbara Peterson, 53, was arrested WednesdayMore >
A Portland city employee is accused of accepting cash for tipping off a tow truck driver about abandoned vehicles as part of a major auto theft investigation.More >
Wednesday, April 23 2014 12:09 PM EDT2014-04-23 16:09:27 GMT
A former UFC fighter who ran a jiu-jitsu academy in Clackamas and served prison time for attempted sex abuse of an underage girl has been deported to Brazil by immigration officials. Hermes Franca De Barros,More >
A former UFC fighter who ran a jiu-jitsu academy in Clackamas and served prison time for attempted sex abuse of an underage girl has been deported to Brazil by immigration officialsMore >
Tuesday, April 22 2014 9:53 AM EDT2014-04-22 13:53:33 GMT
Ranchers in Southern Oregon have legally killed a 490-pound black bear after one of their cows was killed by the bear.The Herald and News reports that field biologists say the male bear weighed 490 pounds,More >
Ranchers in Southern Oregon have legally killed a 490-pound black bear after one of their cows was killed by the bear.More >
Wednesday, April 23 2014 1:39 PM EDT2014-04-23 17:39:28 GMT
Interstate 5 northbound is closed at Southwest Haines Street in Portland because a truck is too tall for an overpass.The truck driver must turn around and exit the freeway, so ODOT crews closed the freewayMore >
There was no damage to the overpass because the driver stopped before reaching it.More >
Thursday, April 24 2014 2:24 AM EDT2014-04-24 06:24:35 GMT
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 43 points and Damian Lillard made six free throws down the stretch to give the Portland Trail Blazers a 112-105 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night and a 2-0 lead in the...More >
LaMarcus Aldridge's son JJ, who turned 5 on Wednesday, texted him after the Portland Trail Blazers' playoff win and told him he looked like Spider-Man on one of his dunks.More >