Orange County's welfare system has the distinction of being the only one in California with district attorney's investigators in each welfare office.
An investigator is assigned to conduct a criminal records check of any applicant who is homeless and who does not have proper identification. If the check turns up any outstanding warrants--even a traffic ticket--they will be enforced before any welfare money is issued.
The controversial background checks--which currently are under legal attack--can also be conducted if a county welfare worker is suspicious of claims made by the applicant.
Critics say Orange County is intentionally scaring away welfare recipients to save itself money.
"It's pure, outright intimidation," said Scott Mather, head of the county's Homeless Issues Task Force.
"Under the rubric of fraud detection, they're scaring the hell out of people," added Robert Newman, an attorney with the Western Center for Law and Poverty in Los Angeles. "If you had a choice of going to two libraries, one where you just filled out the forms and one where you had a police interrogation, which would you choose--even if you're innocent?"
But county officials say they are trying to protect the integrity of the system.
"If people hear . . . it is possible for a felon to hide out on welfare, how am I going to get more money for the homeless?" said Larry Leaman, director of the county's Social Services Agency. "I would ask the (critics) where they think we would be in terms of (public) support if we didn't have these checks and balances."
Supervisor Roger R. Stanton also countered the arguments of critics, saying: "I think those kinds of statements are pure speculation. I'd like to see some facts. We've been hearing these (complaints) the last few years and there's been no successful (legal) challenge based on harassment."
And Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said: "I don't offer anybody apologies for being fiscally responsible to the people of this county."
Regardless of the debate, statistics show the district attorney's work has been a strong deterrent.
Robert Burton, head of the district attorney's welfare fraud unit, said there were nearly 4,000 investigations done last year in the General Relief program and 79% of those clients withdrew their applications. Based on the average cost of a welfare case, Burton said the withdrawals saved the county $768,000 in General Relief payments.
The district attorney's welfare fraud unit is funded largely by the county's Social Services Agency. But Burton and other county officials said they could not properly estimate the cost of the unit because it is spread between the two areas.
The county contends that those who withdrew their applications for aid did so because they were about to be caught committing fraud. But community groups say that many legitimate applicants are scared off by the show of force.
The Western Center for Law and Poverty and the Legal Aid Society have filed a suit against the county to protest the investigations policy.
The lawsuit is based on a case in which a needy mother of two children was turned away from a welfare office because her husband had an outstanding traffic ticket worth $170.
Despite the critics, welfare officials and politicians in Washington and Sacramento have been closely watching Orange County's program and noting the success it has had in saving money.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave county officials an award for the district attorney's unit. Supervisor Stanton also testified before Congress about its success.
And last year, President Reagan signed a new law requiring every county to begin early fraud detection units. The federal law would require that counties have investigators to conduct at least minimal checks of the suspicious claims made by some welfare applicants.
Still, Orange County's program is much more extensive than the federal law requires, because it has an automatic trigger for some of its checks and the investigations are conducted by district attorney's investigators. Most counties use social service employees to do the background checks.
Burton said he does not know any other county in California that has a team of district attorney's investigators in each welfare office.