Monday, April 7, 2014

The Rictus of Death in America

"Dante's Inferno," artwork and photograph © 2014 Nitu N. Daniel

The following appeared in slightly different form in The Dallas Morning News, Sunday April 6, 2014.

I’m willing to wager there are people in insane asylums as a result of dealing with the Social Security Administration. In my mother’s time of need, when she was moved to a nursing home, Social Security cut her off. Finding out why and trying to correct it has opened my eyes to a dysfunctional bureaucracy of systematic torture. It has been a full-time job for nine months. Allow me to share my tale of torment, if you will.

My mother is an 82-year-old American citizen living in Toronto, where she taught acting for the last 20 years. She was a casting director and acting teacher in New York for 20 years before that. A landed immigrant in the great society of Canada. Suffering severe memory loss, the last few years have rendered her unable to carry on her life and work. By September 2013, with terrible sadness, she had to retire to a nursing home in Toronto.

The moment she moved, her Social Security inexplicably stopped. As her oldest son and only advocate, I alerted SS and filled out forms at her Toronto bank during the excruciating weeks of apartment clearing and transition. Letters and phone calls to Social Security went unanswered. I was once left on hold for a half- hour before the line disconnected. It is implied that if you show the slightest bit of irritation they will cut you off. I have endlessly endured those opening three minutes of sickening teleprompts and soul-sucking announcements—a hollow, spinsterly voice on loan from the Women’s Correctional Department.

So I trudged to the Social Security Administration in Dallas, on Central near Royal, and was told to come back with this or that form. This, after taking my ticket and waiting an hour each time. Waiting next to me in the crowded Dallas office were two confused and disgruntled old men. They concurred that the clerks all begin with a presumption of fraud. Understandable. But what about people trying to get their Social Security checks?

During the first two visits they nitpicked at forms, which inevitably had something filled out “wrong.” They rejected my power of attorney papers—which were drawn up in Canada—and said they had to be signed by an American judge. I ended up getting a notary public to sign on top of other notaries public, to authenticate papers that don’t even replicate a notary public’s raised notary in Kinko’s best machines.

Several grinding visits later, I was brushed off by a clerk who for some reason sent me to the IRS. So I trudged to the IRS and was told to return with this or that form. Each visit required a paid parking lot and an hour wait. Since everything was hunky dory, tax-wise, a higher IRS official finally said, “What are you doing here?” She insisted the IRS was independent of Social Security and had nothing to do with my mother’s Social Security check (which, if it existed, would now be her only income). It took three visits to establish this information. Obviously, I am not a tax attorney.

Meanwhile, no explanation was given for why my mother’s checks stopped. This “right to discovery” as it’s known in the American court system, was denied. I was dealing with the old KGB when I pleaded for an explanation as to why her check was cut off. “We can’t tell you,” said each clerk. No matter how many times I made clear that my mother was disabled with dementia, they continually insisted they would have to “speak to her first,” or “could only tell her.” Four voicemails were left by the nursing home, one of them my mom’s own voice stating who she was and that her son takes care of business. Finally, a woman—we’ll call her Mrs. Goldberg—at the Dallas Regional Social Security decided this was “sufficient proof” my mother was alive. It had taken six months before this reason why my mother’s checks stopped was revealed: Social Security said they didn’t know where she was. Never mind the nursing home bills, bank statements and records I displayed.

Mrs. Goldberg represented a breakthrough. A personal contact! The first clerk, after months, to actually look up my case. Mrs. Goldberg! I had found a friend at Social Security. One that would do her job. When she found out I was a writer, she even told me about her husband’s unpublished novel, hinting that maybe I could read it. We even exchanged information about delicatessens. Yes! I’d plow through a mountain of gibberish, heap praise upon Mrs. Goldberg’s husband’s unpublished novel. Just resume my mother’s Social Security.

She agreed to restart my mother’s checks. So began a comedy of errors over the next few months in which endless phone calls were exchanged with Mrs. Goldberg. The labyrinth of bureaucratic hell deepened.

Enter the banks. Four of them in succession. They required doctor’s letters (which are like trying to extract blood), more notaries, forms out the kazoo. I had already done all this at my mother’s Toronto bank. After which they wouldn’t accept American funds by direct deposit. Only a physical check. But Social Security wouldn’t send a physical check to Canada, only direct deposit. When accounts were established, two banks rejected the back benefits that finally arrived. If one bank would agree to something, Social Security would not. And vice versa. Each was oblivious to the other’s protocol. As if the banks and Social Security colluded to sabotage any option for deposit.

Yet the Social Security Administration has offices in U.S. embassies around the world. They are accustomed to direct deposits for Americans who reside in other countries. And Toronto is as close to the U.S. as it gets. Finally, an efficient Chase Bank official provided a special account copacetic with Social Security. Mrs. Goldberg was happy to report the money was finally sent. But apparently not to my mother’s account. All my mother’s residual back payments went to someone else’s account. To whom, Mrs. Goldberg doesn’t know.

Oh, Mrs. Goldberg, are you an innocent nincompoop, or part of some insidious conspiracy to defraud elders in order to cut back the budget? You were to be my angel of mercy. But you turned out to wear the rictus of death. How many elderly have perished in penury by your dyslexic hand?

The Social Security Act was signed by FDR in 1935, part of the New Deal, a payroll tax my mother paid into for decades. But today, they are there to oppose, to frustrate into exhaustion and defeat.

Mrs. Goldberg is presumably under the direction of one Sheila Everett, Regional Commissioner for Dallas. There are 1,400 such regional and field offices in the U.S. From Social Security’s website: “...we are ‘the face of the government.’ The rich diversity of our employees mirrors the public we serve.” The Social Security Administration is requesting $12 billion from the budget for administration expenses in 2015. But they don’t provide emails or take calls. And Commissioner Everett didn’t respond to letters about such matters as my mother. She’s too busy running Social Security.

© 2014 Josh Alan Friedman