LOS ANGELES - The effect of California's welfare reform policies will be less punitive and capricious as a result of a settlement approved by the court yesterday in Nickols v. Saenz, a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups on behalf of poor women and children statewide. The lawsuit challenged the state's application of a "family cap" policy, called the Maximum Family Grant rule, to welfare families without giving them proper advance notice.

The lawsuit, filed by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Center for Youth Law, focused on the rights of parents and teens receiving welfare (now called CalWORKs), to fair warning about California's "Maximum Family Grant" (MFG) rule. This rule denies benefits to any baby born to a family that is already receiving welfare. It applies to adult parents who have a second child, but it also applies to teens who have their first child while living in a family on welfare.

The lawsuit challenged the state's failure to warn families about the implications of the MFG rule for teen parents. The facts of the individual plaintiffs' cases highlight the injustice of penalizing teen parents who had never heard of the MFG rule, by denying aid to their newborn babies. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit included four young parents struggling to finish high school, and to feed, clothe and house themselves and their babies, on as little as $305 per month.

"The stated purpose of the Maximum Family Grant rule was to influence welfare families to delay having more children," said Clare Pastore, staff attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "But without clear advance notice, the rule wasn't even consistent with its own dubious premise that poor families base childbearing decisions on welfare benefits -- it was simply punitive."

The settlement provides relief to young parents and their children currently suffering from the unfair effects of the MFG rule, by restoring benefits to their children. In the future, teens who have babies after receiving proper notice will still be subject to the MFG rule, but only until they become adult heads of households. The settlement also requires the state to improve its notices to families about the MFG rule, so that heads of families will understand and explain the impact of the rule on teens living at home.

"More than any other group in our society," said Rocio Cordoba, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, "poor women and children live the results of other people's rhetoric and social experimentation based on unfounded stereotypes. They understand through hard, real-life experience how laws can be used unfairly to express society's hostility."

"This case involved serious issues of economic survival and basic human dignity," said martha Matthews, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. As a result of the settlement, thousands of children will receive desperately needed aid, and families will have fair warning about the MFG rule in the future."