Friday, December 27, 2002
Home Visit Prerequisite for Welfare Applicants Upheld
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Home visits to Los Angeles County welfare applicants, intended to weed out fraud cases, are not unconstitutional searches, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The program approved by the county Board of Supervisors in 1999 following a scathing grand jury report on welfare fraud was a reasonable step, the court said, and not an unlawful fraud investigation undertaken without evidence of wrongdoing.
“The governmental interest in reducing welfare fraud is great,” Justice Norman Epstein wrote for Div. Four. “Given the limited resources available for public welfare programs, the government has a substantial interest in assuring that the aid goes to those truly eligible for the benefit.”
In upholding the visits, modeled on a pilot San Diego County program, the court also rejected assertions by plaintiffs that the program conflicted with CalWORKS, California’s welfare-to-work program that was implemented as part of federal welfare reform in 1996.
Los Angeles County’s program in fact implements CalWORKS the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids Act Epstein wrote.
The county already had a well-regarded welfare-to-work program, known as GAIN, when Congress completely revamped welfare laws during the first Clinton administration to move more recipients off the welfare roles and into job training and self-sufficiency.
GAIN was expanded under CalWORKS, California’s response to the welfare-to-work mandate.
Although concerns about the extent of possible welfare fraud had often been expressed by members of the Board Supervisors, county officials grew especially alarmed after a report aired on local television about the problem. The board ordered Lynn Bayer, then the director of the county Department of Public Social Services, to look into a home visit program that would both help fight fraudulent applications and identify additional services the were needed.
Concern deepened after a grand jury report that $500 million a year is lost to welfare fraud in the county. The grand jury recommended emulating a San Diego County home visit program called Project 100 Percent.
The Los Angeles County home visit program was launched in September 1999. Applicants were given a 10-day period in which workers would make a visit, walk through the home, and determine that there was nothing that would make the applicant ineligible, like an extra adult living there who hadn’t been reported.
Eligibility workers were not to open drawers or closets. If they determined the application was fraudulent, they could turn away the applicant but could not refer him or her for criminal prosecution.
Several applicants, assisted by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, the San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, filed suit. They claimed the county created a new, unauthorized condition to get benefits that conflicted with CalWORKS. They also said the searches were unconstitutional.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin found in favor of the county and upheld the program.
On appeal, the plaintiffs cited a 1971 ruling that struck down a Madera County requirement that no one over age 9 in that county get welfare benefits unless they work in the grape harvest.
But Epstein said the Madera program improperly added a new standard of eligibility to the state program. The home visits simply provide the county additional information to determine whether the state eligibility standards are met, he said.
As for unconstitutional violations of privacy rights or the right not to be subjected to unreasonable search, Epstein noted that the visits must take into account the applicant’s work or education schedule and could only be conducted between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.
“We conclude that whatever intrusion is involved is minimal, and is outweighed by the government’s interest in preventing welfare fraud,” he said.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company