Public assistance fraud leaves real victims helpless



ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Eyewitness News learned state investigators are constantly battling public assistance fraud, which has consequences that affect the most innocent victims: children.

At Little Angels daycare, 4-year-old Lanae is getting the child care that her working mother of four so desperately needs for her. Tenisha Dallas said affording full-time child care is not easy.

Dallas spent nearly two years on a waiting list for the public assistance known as 4C, which cuts child care costs by nearly 75 percent.

"Parents like myself who are a single mom who are doing the best you can," Dallas said.

The mother isn't alone. According to state officials, 37,000 children are on the 4C waiting list in Florida. About 6,000 of those children are in Orange County alone.

"These people are working hard, trying to make a living, doing all the right things," said Jack Heacock, Jacksonville director for the Division of Public Assistance Fraud at the state Department of Financial Services.

But state public assistance investigators said some of those families will stay on the waiting list because of people defrauding the system. The issue has prompted them to take a more aggressive approach to tackling the problem.

Records show a major spike in the number of public assistance fraud cases sent to the State Attorney's Office for prosecution over recent years. In 2011 it was at 69 cases and by 2013, the amount of cases was up to 180.

"When a parent is receiving a subsidy they are not eligible for, it means I'm looking at another parents and telling them, 'I'm sorry, your child is going on the wait list,'" said Karen Willis, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County.

With only 44 investigators statewide, their focus is on the most severe cases. In 2014, they've identified close to $400,000 in fraud so far.

Willis said those parents are eventually forced to pay back the money. It's money that could've helped Lanae get day care help a lot sooner.

"The real victims of the abusers of the system are very young children. That's the real victim," Willis said.