MOUNT VERNON — Every complaint and phone call tip to the Knox County Department of Job & Family Services is checked, according to interim director Matthew Kurtz. But it may surprise many people to learn that many such tips don’t pan out.
“We investigate all complaints that come to us, but sometimes those who made the complaint don’t understand a family situation,” Kurtz said. He said that the changing focus of welfare reform in recent years has changed the face of welfare. Sometimes people who appear to be working while drawing benefits may actually be in a work program where they have to perform community service in order to receive assistance.
“Today we have what has become known as ‘the working poor,’” Kurtz said. “We’re trying to help people before they become destitute.” He said this has particularly been an issue in the wake of the recession, which sent people applying for assistance who never have applied, nor ever thought they would apply for welfare.
The majority of the department’s catches of fraudulent claims and system double-dippers come from computer cross-checks of public databases.
Kurtz said that one way the department works hard to eliminate fraud is to prevent it. As soon as a person applies, the JFS computers cross-reference the person’s identification information with federal W2 forms, national fugitive felon lists, Social Security databases and more. Those checks are then followed up with in-depth credit reports with different caseworkers cross-referencing different information sources made accessible by the in-depth application process, which includes several permission sign-offs.
“People are getting more wise to the fact that if there’s something against you on a computer somewhere, it’s going to show up here,” Kurtz said, adding that a recent state audit of the Knox County JFS found a 99-percent accuracy in its data-mining.
Kurtz said that there are still times when investigators are physically sent to a house to investigate a question or complaint, but he said this happens less than it used to, simply because it isn’t the strongest evidence. Kurtz said that if there’s a question of, say, a boyfriend living with a woman receiving benefits, counting the number of his shirts that are in her closet is not going to offer substantial proof of his residence that will stand up in a court of law. A change of address or a bank account in his name at that address, however, can be accepted as hard proof.
Cases can be referred to the county prosecutor, Kurtz said, and indeed this does happen once or twice every year. But in many cases, the money can be recouped by sanctioning any further benefits the person is slated to receive.
The recession hasn’t hit the department’s investigations as hard as might be expected, Kurtz said, thanks to the ever-increasing change to digitally-imaged documents, which allow for quicker checking, even though there are more documents and computer alerts to check than ever, due to the high number of customers JFS is currently seeing. He said that the department is only down three people, but that all case workers have seen an increase of 10 to 15 percent, even after budget cuts have severely curtailed such programs as the Prevention Retention Contingency, cooperative programs with Interchurch, and similar such programs.