My experience as a law student in the Children’s Advocacy Institute’s policy clinic has been a truly rewarding and motivating experience both personally and professionally. My participation in the clinic’s Homeless Youth Outreach Project has afforded me a more comprehensive understanding of the homeless youth community’s unique social, educational and legal needs. Moreover, the experience has stimulated my philanthropic spirits and revitalized my enthusiasm for dedicating my legal career to child advocacy.
The world and its future depend on those characters of the current generation ready and willing to foster and protect the welfare of our children. Unfortunately, this reality became all too real for me when I began working closely with homeless youth. Endless avenues exist for others to take advantage of such an innocently naive demographic. From landlord-tenant issues to securing stable employment, these youth heavily rely on the confidence and trust of others for many of their basic needs. One reoccurring theme echoed through the life stories guardedly told by the youth I have come into contact with are the unnecessary hardships faced when exiting foster care or otherwise emancipating themselves. Specifically, one issue I encountered that raised red flags is the SSI representative payee program where SSI funds are distributed to beneficiaries through a third party. Under this system, if the Social Security Administration makes a determination that a specific beneficiary is unfit to directly manage their funds, the SSA will approve a representative of the beneficiary to supervise the distribution of money. While this system undoubtedly ensures the funds are applied toward the beneficiary’s most appropriate needs, those who have an organizational payee face certain challenges that beneficiaries with more personal payees (i.e. legal guardians, family members or close friends) might encounter less often. The foundational idea behind the program is that the representative be someone who knows the beneficiary’s current and reasonably foreseeable needs, spend the funds accordingly, responsibly manage any remaining funds with the best interests of the beneficiary in mind, and keep a written account of how the funds were used.
When I learned of the organizational payee program, I was immediately, perhaps naively, convinced that a regime where organizational payees serve as representatives for beneficiaries was a recipe for disaster. At first glance, it would seem that there are many opportunities under such a regime for the bad apples to slip through the cracks and escape liability for misusing beneficiary funds. After all, how could an organizational payee serving several homeless youth and countless other beneficiaries know the best and most prudent needs of their clients? Moreover, because they serve multiple beneficiaries, what devices are in place to ensure a single client does not become lost in the crowd?
My natural fears of such a system somewhat subsided, however, after reading the relevant statutes, papers written by concerned third parties and several SSA annual reports on the results of periodic representative payee site reviews and other reviews. I was pleased to discover a well-developed and increasingly efficient monitoring system of all representative payees, including high-volume organizational payees. The Social Security Act, as amended by the Social Security Protection Act of 2004, requires the SSA to actively monitor representative payees and annually report agency progress. Current monitoring measures include annual payee accounting reports, mandatory triennial site reviews and other “random” site reviews, targeted reviews of those payees suspected of mishandling beneficiary funds, and other proactive efforts to ensure compliance and promote best practices on behalf of payees. These procedures have been successful in identifying unlawful behavior on behalf of payees. The SSA then makes efforts to remedy correctable behavior by working closely with the payee and referring particularly egregious actions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Office of Inspector for potential federal prosecution. While there is always room for improvement, the increasing efforts on behalf of the SSA and individual payees over the past decade are an integral step in the right direction to ensure the well-being of vulnerable beneficiaries including homeless youth. Current measures serve as a strong deterrent for payee misconduct by imposing comprehensive oversight on all qualified payees.
In conclusion, my experience in CAI’s clinic has exposed me to a wide range of legal issues faced by at-risk youth and the comprehensive, but often confusing and convoluted, legal regimes designed to protect this vulnerable population. As a future lawyer dedicated to helping youth, I am determined to unravel and demystify these statutes in order to represent the best interests of my clients. But more, my suspicious curiosity regarding the SSI representative payee program has taught me to question the legal principles and procedures on which I rely in order to determine whether a better or more efficient scheme would better serve the client. Equally important to individual representation is advocacy at a macro level—the law is an evolving organism heavily dependent on aggressive individuals and groups willing to identify and propose solutions for areas that need improvement.
This blog post was written by CAI Policy Clinic Student Johnathan Abrams