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A Racine woman may serve prison time for food stamp fraud, but she says she has paid off almost half of the $38,000 she owes and has every intention of paying the money back.

Vanessa Hetchler, 38, of Racine, was charged Tuesday with food stamp fraud-value greater than $5,000, food stamp offense – misstating facts on a food stamp application (value of benefit greater than $5,000), public assistance fraud-greater than $10,000 and public assistance fraud greater than $1,000-$2,000. If convicted of all charges, she faces up to 30 years nine months in prison and/or fined up to $85,000.

According to the criminal complaint, Hetchler claimed that she was the sole provider for her three children and received $38,513  in food stamps (FoodShare) and medical assistance (BadgerCare) from 2010 through August 2015. When officials with the Racine County Workforce Development Center investigated the case, they found that the father of one of Hetchler’s children was living with her. But he denies that the two are a couple.

What the state law says

State law requires that recipients of entitlement programs like FoodShare and BadgerCare report all income from those living in the household. Because she did not report that the father of her child, Wade Mars, was living with her, the state says it overpaid Hetchler.

The FoodShare and BadgerCare money Hetchler received, however, was not for Mars’ child. Rather they were for Hetchler’s other two children who are not his. The FoodShare Wisconsin program exempts boarders. But they include adults and minor children under the age of 18 years that are exercising parental control in the same food unit, even though “they do not purchase and prepare meals together,” according to the FoodShare handbook.

In a letter dated Dec. 9, Mars claims that he is Hetchler’s “roommate,” that they were never a couple despite the two having a child together and he “never bought her food or consumed her food bought on food stamps.” He bought his and his son’s food separately. He also paid for his and his son’s medical care.

Hetchler sought help through LegalAction of Wisconsin to see if she could appeal her case, but she was told that because Mars was living with her at the time she needed to pay the money back.

“And I started doing that,” she said.

Racine County Eye obtained documents the Racine County Human Services Department sent Hetchler, which showed that she has paid over $18,000 of the $38,000. Those payments, however, are not recorded in the criminal complaint.

“I just want to continue paying this off to clear things up,” she said. “I’m not trying to get out of it, I am working hard to pay the money back.”

Why Hetchler was on Foodstamps/medical assistance

Hetchler suffered from extreme anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. Unable to work, she sought the help of a mental health professional from March 11, 2015, and completed 85 therapy sessions. With the help of her therapist, she was able to make progress. She then landed a professional full-time position a year ago and is going to college to earn an advanced degree, according to her therapist Jessica Dorner.

“She continues to experience high anxiety regularly, however, is able to manage panic attacks more effectively than in the past,” according to a letter written by Dorner on Hetchler’s behalf.

When Hetchler sought help from Legal Action, the attorney noted in a letter dated Jan. 5 that if she entered into a repayment agreement with the state and make monthly payments “the state should not bring any involuntary collection against you.”

“I was told the letter means nothing,” she said. “The letter is worthless because that’s an attorney in Milwaukee.”

State law allows for the Racine County District Attorney’s Office to enter into pre-charge diversion agreements as an alternative for anyone referred to the DA to avoid the “stigma of actual court prosecution,” according to the Foodshare Handbook.

“But that option was never given to me,” she said.

Racine County Eye has reached out to the DA’s office on their policy around offering diversion agreements. We will update the story when we receive their response.

Hetchler was released on a signature bond. She is set for a preliminary hearing at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 10 in front of Racine County Court Commissioner John Bjelajac,

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.