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HomeHealthFor decades, states have taken foster children's federal benefits. That's starting to...

For decades, states have taken foster children’s federal benefits. That’s starting to change

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — By the time Jesse Fernandez turned 18, the federal government had paid out thousands of dollars in Social Security survivor’s benefits because of the death of his mother. But Jesse’s bank account was empty.

The money had all been used by Missouri’s foster care system or relatives responsible for his care.

“I was shocked,” said Jason White, a foster parent to Fernandez.

“Those dollars are a big deal,” he continued. “Had they been saved, or a chunk of it saved, he’d have money for a car and a first-time apartment.”

For decades, states have routinely applied for Social Security survivor and disability benefits on behalf of foster children and then used that money to help cover the costs of foster care services. The tactic has saved states from having to spend millions of their own tax dollars on foster care programs.

But that’s beginning to change under pressure from child advocates who contend the practice is both immoral and detrimental to foster children because it exhausts funds that could have helped them transition to adulthood.

More than a dozen states have made at least some sort of revisions to the practice since Maryland became the first to do so in 2018. Colorado became the latest in April when it enacted a law establishing a foster children’s list of rights, which stipulates that any benefits be used for their “individual needs.”

Similar measures have been proposed this year in numerous states as part of an “incredible explosion of reform efforts,” said Amy Harfeld, national policy director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law.

But change doesn’t always come easy.

Missouri legislation that advocates touted as a national model failed to receive final approval Friday, despite previously passing both chambers. Supporters pointed to gridlock in the Republican-led Legislature and concerns about an unrelated child-custody amendment attached to the bill.

Both chambers of the Democratic-led Maine Legislature also approved a measure last month that would have prohibited the state from using foster children’s federal survivor benefits to reimburse its costs for foster care services. But the legislation failed to reach the governor’s desk because lawmakers weren’t able to allocate the nearly $1.8 million necessary to compensate for the proposed change.

“There is a strong and growing interest to implement reforms,” said Meg Dygert, staff leader of the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators.

But “addressing this issue is not without its complexities,” she said. “To shift practices, child welfare agencies must work through significant financial, operational, technical, and legal challenges.”

An estimated 40,000 to 80,000 children in foster care either receive or are eligible for Social Security benefits, typically because of the death of a parent or their own disability, according to a report released last month by the Children’s Advocacy Institute. Those benefits typically pay hundreds of dollars a month per child, which adds up to millions of dollars annually for states.

In Missouri, the Children’s Division spent more than $9.3 million last year on foster care services from the accounts of about 1,400 foster children who received Social Security benefits, according to legislative research staff.

Those federal disability payments would have amounted to an estimated $123,000 over 13 years for Alexus Brandon, her foster mother Brenda Keith said. But Brandon, 21, received none of that when she aged out of Missouri’s foster care system because the state had used it all, Keith said.

Brandon now receives monthly disability checks, but she has fallen behind on rent payments and can’t afford a car, making it harder to get a job.

Had the state set aside some of her childhood disability benefits for future use, “it would have helped me start out my life,” Brandon said.

The Missouri legislation would have required the Children’s Division to apply for Social Security benefits on behalf of eligible foster children but prohibited the agency from using that money for required foster care expenses. Instead, the benefits would have been set aside for children when they age out of foster care or spent on “unmet needs” such as school, transportation or other items.

A similar measure passed the Republican-led Arizona Legislature last year and was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. At the time, the state Department of Child Safety said it was collecting about $6.2 million annually in Social Security and veterans’ survivor benefits on behalf of foster children and spending around $4 million of that on foster care services.

“We shouldn’t be funding government off the backs of abused children,” said Kendall Seal, vice president of policy at the Center for the Rights of Abused Children, which backed the Arizona and Missouri measures.

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, also signed a law last year barring the state from using children’s benefits to cover the state’s costs of food, clothing, housing and daily supervision of foster children. It instead directs those funds to savings accounts for children’s personal needs, including education and future housing expenses.

New Mexico’s children’s department announced last year it would no longer tap into foster children’s Social Security benefits and instead place that money in a trust for children. Massachusetts’ children’s agency said earlier this year it also was ending the use of foster children’s Social Security benefits to cover its costs.

Lawmakers in Missouri and Maine said they would try again next year to pass legislation limiting the state’s use of foster children’s federal benefits.

The Maine measure was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Amy Roeder, who adopted two sons from foster care, including one who receives Social Security survivor’s benefits because his biological father died. While he was in the foster care system, her son didn’t receive any of those monthly benefit payments. But Roeder said she is now saving the funds until he is an adult to help pay for higher education or housing.

“Money is a cold comfort when you lose somebody, but it’s something,” Roeder said, “even if it’s just a little bit of a boost to get you started.

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