Seventy-five-year-old Clarence Ayers has never faced a debt collector like this. He received a letter from the welfare office earlier this year saying his 14-year-old great-granddaughter, Irene L., owes nearly $3,000 for benefits her mother should not have gotten while pregnant with Irene. Now Irene's current $334 a month government aid is being cut until the debt is paid.
"I never knew that," Ayers said. "I knew they went after grown-up people, and people that don't pay child support, but not children."
Jamie H. of Riverside County is now a college student and she, too, got a demand letter to pay back benefits her family received when she was 16 years old. Her wages and tax refund are being garnished -- money she needs for school.
"Obviously, the state's gone out of bounds on this," Mike Herald with the Western Center on Law and Poverty said. "It's just overzealous."
The Western Center on Law and Poverty has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the two girls. It wants the state to stop this practice that has been going on for years.
"You're allowed to recover from the parents and a grandparent, if they're part of an assistance unit," Herald said. "But there's nothing in state law that says you can take money back from a child."
The California Department of Social Services says it's sensitive to the overpayment issue, but state law mandates that counties first go after the adults associated with the case when seeking a refund of benefits.
"When those efforts are fully exhausted, the county is required to seek recoupment of overpayments from any individual that was an aided member of a family case," Michael Weston with the California Department of Social Services said in a statement.
"They're supposed to protect their child. So why would the state do that? They're not protecting that child," Ayers said. "They're victimizing that child."
The lawsuit also wants the state to refund all the money it has collected from children over the years for welfare debt. Oftentimes, the overpayments were due to a clerical error.