Nevada County: Welfare abusers ‘in the minority," official says
Sun News Service
GRASS VALLEY, Calif. – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s insistence on cost-cutting measures to weed out what he has described as “waste, fraud and abuse” in the state’s social service programs has struck a nerve with many Californians.
But nailing down exactly how much fraud occurs within social service programs – and what exactly constitutes fraud – is not that clear-cut. What most people think of as fraud – an outright attempt to get assistance that is not actually needed – is not encountered all that often, said Nevada County welfare fraud investigator Mike Sherman.
“Those who are cunning, who secure thousands of dollars in aid, are fully prosecuted,” he said. But, he said, “I don’t see it that often. I haven’t filed a case in about a year.”
Sherman said he is currently investigating two cases that exceed $20,000, but that charges have not yet been filed.
Some counties – San Diego County, for instance – report close to a 50 percent fraud rate, but Sherman is quick to point out that “fraud” in many cases boils down to clerical errors.
“You could call it rampant, to a degree,” he said. “But on the other hand, some of that is just administrative error or some correctable offense … A lot of people who go on welfare go on it temporarily. Abusers of the system are in the minority.”
There are statewide systems in place for eligibility workers to make a referral if suspicions are raised, Sherman said. Nevada County goes one step further, however, putting a prevention program in place that other counties are using as a model.
“We get more bang for our buck in the prevention mode,” he said. “There is $1 to $4 in savings for every dollar spent in prevention.”
Nevada County’s early fraud detection program is simple enough – it involves screening applicants before aid is granted.
“We check DMV records, criminal history for felony drug convictions, (and) arrest warrants,” Sherman said.
The mandatory screening was imposed in 2003. Last year, investigators stopped $487,000 in benefits from being issued to ineligible recipients, Sherman said.
In May, Nevada County Social Services Director Alison Lehman estimated one in 10 people in Nevada County – or 10,000 residents – receives some kind of assistance from Social Services. As unemployment rises, so does the need for public assistance – and so does the number of ineligible applicants.
More than 400 applicants were screened in March, Lehman said. In April, the most recent month for which the county had statistics, 25 percent of applicants were denied assistance.
“Screenings are where the big-dollar savings are made,” Sherman said. “It’s like being on patrol – how many burglaries did you prevent with your presence?”
Sherman is now the sole welfare fraud investigator for the county, down from three just a few years ago. He worked for 14 years for the Nevada City Police Department before moving to the county and currently sits on the board of the California Welfare Fraud Investigators Association.
Sherman said his focus is on protecting the integrity of the assistance programs, but noted that policing tax dollars is secondary to the mission of helping those in need.
“This is a segment of the population that is really hurting and needs assistance,” he said. “If they have pending criminal or legal matters, we try to assist them in getting things cleared up so they are eligible for benefits. There is a social service aspect … our goal is to help the individual applicants whenever possible.”
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