Public welfare programs—sometimes referred to as public assistance or government benefit programs—provide need-based assistance to individuals. Program requirements might be based on income, age, disability, or another status. To determine eligibility or continued eligibility, a local agency may require a home visit.
To ensure public funds are used as intended, a person or household must meet strict eligibility requirements. Often a person applies for public assistance through a local social services agency. (States, through local agencies, administer federal and state welfare programs.) The application process usually involves filling out forms, providing documentation, and conducting interviews with applicants and their contacts. If an agency cannot verify eligibility status based on this information, the agency can conduct a home visit—for instance, to confirm the number of income-earners or dependents living in the home.
Whether an agency will require a home visit depends on the federal, state, or local program requirements. In some cases, the agency will ask for a face-to-face interview at the local social services office or conduct a phone or videoconference interview. If the agency cannot reach the applicant or confirm eligibility for other reasons, the agency can require a home visit.
For instance, California’s food assistance program, CalFresh, provides that a home visit might be necessary when eligibility cannot be determined through the applicant’s documentation. CalFresh caseworkers must conduct home visits only on a case-by-case basis (not random, suspicionless visits).
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that home visits used to make public assistance eligibility determinations are not criminal searches, which means Fourth Amendment protections do not apply to these visits. Caseworkers are not conducting criminal investigations and do not need a search warrant to enter or walk through the home. (Wyman v. James, 91 S.Ct. 381 (1971).)
The Court noted that home visits are an administrative tool and not a forced or compelled search. The applicant can deny entry to the caseworker without criminal repercussions. While benefits eligibility might be conditioned on a home visit, the Court said this condition didn’t turn a home visit into a warrantless search. Other courts have reasoned that an applicant who refuses to allow a home visit doesn’t lose benefits based on the refusal but, rather, the fact that the refusal means the agency can't make an eligibility determination. (S.L. v. Whitburn, 67 F.3d 1299 (7th Cir. 1995); Sanchez v. County of San Diego, 464 F.3d 916 (9th Cir. 2006).)
During the visit, the agency worker might interview the applicant, discuss the program requirements, and walk through the applicant’s home. The scope of the interview should not go beyond determining or reassessing eligibility. The caseworker’s duty is to gather information relating to the application or reassessment, such as evaluating the applicant’s assets or disability status or determining who’s living in the household. The walk-through should be limited to what is in plain view, meaning caseworkers should not be rifling through drawers.
Even though a home visit isn’t a criminal search or investigation, the applicant maintains the right to refuse a home visit or withdraw their previous consent. This refusal, of course, can result in denial of benefits.
If the applicant allows the home visit, agency rules generally oblige caseworkers to conduct themselves in a certain manner. Upon arriving, caseworkers should identify themselves and offer identification. The caseworker should give the applicant, if requested, time to call the agency to verify the worker's identity. If the applicant doesn’t speak English, the caseworker must provide an interpreter.
Agency rules typically require advanced notice of a home visit, although this notice can be limited to the day or days when the visit will occur. The notice doesn’t need to provide an exact time. (Some programs do conduct unannounced searches.)
The caseworker can look at what’s in plain view inside the home. Because eligibility determinations are not criminal investigations, the caseworker cannot search for or seize items. Interview questions should relate to financial and household circumstances and not go beyond the scope of eligibility for aid.
A caseworker should treat you with respect. If you feel you are being threatened, misled, or harassed, ask the person to leave and promptly file a complaint with the agency.
Every state has different titles for caseworkers and investigators—so don’t rely solely on a title but rather also ask the individual to specify the objective of the visit. Caseworkers typically focus on eligibility requirements and assist the applicant with questions. An investigator refers to someone looking into allegations of welfare fraud that could result in criminal penalties.
The investigator might request that you attend a meeting. If so, you have the right to bring an attorney with you or to consult with an attorney before signing any documents. If a welfare fraud investigator comes to your home without a warrant asking to conduct a search, contact an attorney.
If you have questions regarding a scheduled or possible home visit, contact an attorney. Many areas provide free or low-cost civil legal aid services (although many agencies are stretched thin). This government website provides links to help you find low-cost, pro bono, or volunteer lawyers. (In civil matters like this, the government isn't required to provide you with an attorney. The right to a public defender or court-appointed attorney only kicks in when you face criminal charges in criminal court.)
You might also find information on the local agency's website or call them and ask for information regarding your rights during a home visit.