Monthly Archives: October 2013

How Maryland robs its most vulnerable children

BrokenPiggyBank

Try this on for size: The agency overseeing foster care has been appropriating foster children’s assets – orphaned children’s survivor benefits, for example – and handing them over to the state.

There’s more: Not only does this agency take assets from children, but Governor O’Malley and the head of the Maryland Department of Human Resources encourage the practice, going so far as to hire a private company to help obtain Social Security disability (SSI) and survivor benefits (SSDI) from foster children to use as government revenue.

Children’s social security benefits are intended to serve the children’s best interests. But our foster care agency is targeting abused and neglected children who are disabled or have dead parents, applying for social security benefits on their behalf – and then diverting the money to state coffers.  The practice has been occurring for years, but in secret. Children and their lawyers are not notified.

Despite litigation regarding the practice, Maryland hired a private contractor – MAXIMUS (tag line: “Helping Government Serve the People”) – to help broaden these efforts to “maximize revenue gain.” Records obtained by Public Information Act request expose the following:

  • MAXIMUS recommendations “designed to promote the identification of and subsequent acquisition of all SSI/SSDI benefits for all qualifying foster care children;”
  • MAXIMUS “encourage[s] caseworkers to refer any child suspected from suffering from any illness – from a quadriplegic to ADHA [sic];”
  • A goal to increase the number of Maryland foster children determined disabled for Social Security benefits from the current 2% to 15-20%;
  • Plans to convert up to $9 million annually in resulting children’s benefits to government revenue;
  • And a warning that Maryland may be double dipping by possibly obtaining foster children’s assets and other funds to reimburse itself for state costs more than once.

Two foster children challenged the agency practice, and their cases worked through the Maryland courts.  I represented Alex, and the Legal Aid Bureau represented Ryan.  Alex entered foster care at age 12, when his mother died. His father died shortly thereafter. Ryan entered foster care at age 9, and then both of his parents died.  Both boys were shifted between numerous group homes and foster care placements. The boys never knew their parents left them with survivor benefits, because the foster care agency never told them – and never told them it applied for their benefits, that it became representative payee to gain control over their money, or that it routed their money into state coffers. Both boys left foster care penniless.

The Court of Appeals denied hearing Alex’s appeal, but it granted review of Ryan’s case, and I filed an amicus brief on behalf of several advocates. The Court just issued a ruling in In re Ryan W., concluding Maryland violated Ryan’s constitutional due process rights by applying for and taking his funds without notifying him or his lawyer. This is an important ruling for foster children’s rights. If children can find another representative payee, the state can no longer force them to hand over their money.

But unfortunately, the Court upheld the state’s argument that when it serves as payee it can divert children’s benefits to repay state costs and thus bolster government revenue – even though children have no debt obligation to pay for their own foster care.  This part of the decision is incorrect in my view. But even if it’s correct, the Court recognizes that Maryland has discretion as representative payee to consider the best use of the children’s money.

So, since the state has discretion, I posit this question: what should our Governor do? If our state and foster care agency need more revenue, is the answer really to take resources from the very children this agency exists to serve?

Other states do it too, but that doesn’t make it right.

Consider how the children are fairing: Twice as many foster children suffer from post traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans; over one-third of children aging out of foster care never graduated from high school; only 3 percent complete college; less than half find employment; 85 percent suffer from mental health issues; over one-third are homeless; and almost 75 percent of males become incarcerated by age 26.

A better approach would use children’s money to actually help the children, such as conserving the children’s funds in individualized plans to help their specialized needs and to help them achieve independence once they leave foster care.

About the Author: Daniel L. Hatcher is a professor of law in the University of Baltimore’s Civil Advocacy Clinic, reachable at dhatcher@ubalt.edu.

This article was originally published in the Baltimore Sun on October 14, 2013, and can be accessed here.

It’s Just Kindergarten – Is Attendance Really That Important?

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Many families do not prioritize attendance because they may not appreciate the high marginal value of every school day, the dangers elementary school truancy and absenteeism create for their child’s long term success and opportunities, and that school attendance is legally required.  However, elementary school provides a brief window in which to teach children the fundamental skills they will need to lead productive and happy lives.  It is where we diagnose a child for vision, hearing or learning impairments.  Above all, it is where we build a foundation for academic success and set children on a path to good health and economic security.

Late last month, California’s Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris released a new report, “In School and On Track, The Attorney General’s 2013 Report on California’s Elementary School Truancy and Absenteeism Crisis.”  The Attorney General announced that this is only the first of several reports.  Because the link between elementary school truancy rates can be so closely correlated with high school dropout rates and crime rates, California’s Attorney General’s Office will produce annual reports tracking truancy and chronic absence in elementary schools across the state.  Many of the statistics of the Report are simply jaw-dropping.  For example, did you know that high school dropouts cost California $46 billion each year?  A summary of the report’s key findings is below:

School Budget Impact of Truancy

  • School districts lose $1.4 billion per year based on student absences because school funding is based on student attendance rates.
  • San Diego County Schools lost almost $95 million in the 2010-2011 school year due to absenteeism.  That equates to $211.20 per student that was lost over the course of the year.

Dangers Truancy Creates for Your Child

  • Truancy (being absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on 3 occasions in a school year), especially among elementary school students has long-term negative effects.
  • Students who miss school at an early age will fall behind their classmates.  Students who miss a lot of school in the early years are likely to become disengaged from their studies and struggle academically, develop behavior problems and, in later years, to drop out of school entirely.
  • First grade students with 9 or more absences are two times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers who attend school regularly.
  • For low-income elementary students who have already  missed 5 days of school, each additional school day missed decreased the student’s chance of graduating by 7%.
  • High School dropouts can be predicted with 66% accuracy based on attendance data in the third grade.
  • According to one study comparing the scores of more than 600 kindergarten students on a school readiness exam and a 3rd grade reading test, students who arrived at school academically ready to learn but then missed 10% of their kindergarten and first grade years, scored an average of 60 points below similar students with good attendance on 3rd grade reading tests.  In math, the gap was nearly 100 points on tests with 400 points possible.
  • Increasing graduation rates in California by 10% would result in 50,000 additional graduates annually, 500 murders prevented each year, and 20,000 aggravated assaults prevented each year.

Truancy is Against the Law

  • Truancy is against the law.  California’s Compulsory Education Law requires every child from the age of 6 to 18 to be in school – on time, every day.
  • Because of the long-term negative effects of elementary school truancy, there is currently a statewide push for prosecutors to accept referrals for truancy prosecutions of parents when an elementary school child is involved.

About the Author: Christina Riehl is a Senior Staff Attorney in CAI’s San Diego office. She conducts litigation activities; performs research and analysis regarding CAI’s legislative and regulatory policy advocacy; assists in the research and drafting of CAI special reports; and serves as an Educational Representative under appointment by the San Diego Juvenile Court. Before joining CAI, Riehl worked as staff attorney with the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, where she represented minor clients in dependency court proceedings. Prior to that, she interned with the Honorable Susan Huguenor, formerly the presiding judge in San Diego Juvenile Court. Riehl is a graduate of the USD School of Law, where she participated in the CAI academic program.