States across the country regularly confiscate the assets of foster children, including Social Security survivor and disability benefits — all but ensuring these youths’ failure as they “age out” of the foster care system at age 18, according to a new report released today.
Each year, about 30,000 of the nation’s 500,000 foster children turn 18 and become legally emancipated. The rates of homelessness, educational failure and unemployment among these foster alumni far outstrip rates for other youths.
The Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI) and First Star report documents that many state governments have been legally confiscating the funds of foster children. These assets flow from Social Security benefits earned by deceased family members or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. States apply for the benefits – many times without informing the children — then redirect the funds to state agencies for foster care services those agencies are legally obligated to provide.
The report, entitled “The Fleecing of Foster Children: How We Confiscate Their Assets and Undermine Their Financial Security,” released at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill, describes in detail how many of the young victims end up homeless and without resources as state after state confiscates their personal assets. Child advocates believe the problem will only get worse as more states address their budget problems.
“Parents don’t charge their children for food, clothing and shelter, and states shouldn’t charge foster children, either,” said Robert C. Fellmeth, CAI Executive Director. “States are breaking their commitment to foster children by this practice of confiscating benefits and assets and applying the money toward their support.”
“Foster children are removed from their homes by the state for their own protection, supplanting parental authority. For the states to turn around and punish them by taking the children’s own money and leaving them destitute when they age out of the system is a violation of these vulnerable kids who need support to stand on their own.”
According to the report, a 2003 Supreme Court ruling opened the door for states to apply for foster children’s survivor and disability benefits and use the funds for their support. The report cites a Congressional Research Service study that found states collect over $150 million in these federal benefits, including Social Security benefits (also known as Old Age Survivors & Disability Insurance or OASDI) that children are entitled to because their deceased parents paid into the Social Security system.
The report cites an analysis that shows the cost of young people aging out of the foster care system each year who can’t function properly on their own is approximately $5.7 billion, in the form of lost earnings (and thus lost tax revenues), criminal justice system expenditures, and government cash assistance and health programs. On an individual level, each foster youth who drops out of high school costs the public sector $209,100 over a lifetime due to lost wages and greater need for public support services.
”The system is failing foster children,” said Peter Samuelson, co-founder and Chairman of First Star. “The damage these children suffer by having no assets after foster care ends up costing society substantially more than the confiscation of their small funds. They depend entirely on the courts and state officials, and they have no place else to turn.”
In addition, many foster children become victims of identity theft, as their social security numbers pass through the hands of numerous agencies and individuals throughout their time in the system. The report includes individual stories of foster children who discover that, although they have never applied for loans or credit, they have defaulted on credit cards, car loans and student loans.
Jaleesa Suell, 21, is a George Washington University student who was in foster care in California. At the congressional briefing and press conference, she described her ordeal when she discovered someone had ruined her credit by stealing her social security number and defaulting on loan. She is now unable to obtain a student credit card and build a credit history that will enable her to rent an apartment or acquire a car loan.
The CAI and First Star report recommends passage of two federal bills that would give children the start they need to find a home, or begin college, and live independently once they are ineligible for foster care at age 18. These two bills, which would result in long-term revenue savings, would end the confiscation of their existing assets, and require states to inform these children that they may have assets. The two bills are:
The Foster Children Self-Support Act, which would ensure that foster children are able to use their
Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits to address their needs, improve their
lives and create a basic safety net when they age out of foster care. Key provisions would:
- Restrict state agencies from using a child’s benefits as a general revenue source;
- Exclude conserved funds as well as personal earnings, inherited assets, and civil judgments from the $2,000 resource limit under the SSI program;
- Require that all foster children be screened for OASDI and SSI eligibility while in care, and require child welfare agencies to notify the child’s attorney and/or guardian;
- Develop and implement a “Plan for Achieving Self Support” that is specific to each child receiving Social Security benefits;
- Create an Individual Development Account (IDA) for each child receiving benefits, so that these Social Security assets would be conserved to assist the youth in obtaining housing, education, or job training after emancipation from foster care.
The Foster Youth Financial Security Act would require that states assist children in foster care in making the transition to independent living by redressing identity theft or credit fraud issues. It would ensure that youths transitioning out of care have basic documents and tools for achieving independence. The bill would protect against identity theft and credit fraud by requiring that foster care agencies review the credit reports of all foster children, and take action to clear them if there is an inaccuracy, prior to leaving care, and end the use of a child’s Social Security number as an identifier. The bill would ensure that youths leave foster care with the documents they need, and require agencies to help them apply for state benefits and financial aid, educate
them about obtaining health and auto insurance, and provide them and any interested caretakers with financial literacy courses.
Both bills died in the House Ways & Means Committee last year, but are expected to be reintroduced this session.
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