Mark Holm / The New York Times
Thursday, May 20, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Imagine being a foster child who, upon aging out of the system, learned that the state government had been taking thousands of dollars in Social Security benefits from you while you were in foster care. The money, which was designed to give you a nest egg to ease your transition into adulthood, was instead used to pay for the services you received through the system.
Unfortunately, this isn’t hypothetical. It happens routinely in states across the country, including Nevada, and despite how it may sound is perfectly legal.
In an impressive work of investigative reporting, The Marshall Project and National Public Radio revealed the common use of this practice last month and detailed a congressional legislative proposal to stop it.
The funds in question are Social Security benefits given to children whose parents have died or who have a physical or mental disability that would put them at the risk of poverty without financial aid. The benefits are generally $700 per month or more, and they’re considered the property of the children under federal law. Roughly 10% of the nation’s estimated 425,000 children in foster care on any given day receive those benefits.
However, the team of reporters discovered that in at least 36 states, state- and local-government foster care services apply to Social Security to become the children’s financial representatives and then take the benefits to help fund the children’s services. They routinely do this without notifying the children, other relatives or lawyers.
It’s important to stress again that this is legal, for now at least. Federal law allows government officials to become the children’s financial representatives, and the practice survived a legal challenge that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s right — and that’s definitely the case here.
These children didn’t wind up in foster care by choice, and they shouldn’t have to fund their own services. We, as a society, have determined that it is our responsibility to protect and care for children who have lost their parents or have been removed from abusive or neglectful home environments.
What’s more, we should ensure that they receive the money the children need to enter life on their own when they emerge from the system. And at the very least, we should ensure that children are notified about the benefits and provided with an opportunity to legally contest the takings. The right of every American to do so is protected under the Constitution.
Communities should bear the costs of their services, not the kids, by increasing funding to child service agencies. Chronic underfunding of those agencies was a key reason this practice was adopted.
“It’s like something out of a Charles Dickens novel,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D.-Md., in the NPR/Marshall Project report. “This is like confiscating someone’s Social Security benefits because they availed themselves of the fire department.”
Daniel Hatcher, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and a leading expert on this practice, put it another way: “I think sometimes these officials are so in the weeds of getting funding however they can, they don’t even realize that this is not just another funding stream — this is literally children’s own money. This is about whether we’re going to use abused and neglected children’s own money to pay for what we’re supposed to be providing them as a society.”
In Nevada, where the state provides foster services everywhere except Clark and Washoe counties, the Department of Child and Family Services confirmed in response to an inquiry from the Sun that it collects children’s benefits and puts them in a trust fund used to pay for services and special equipment requested for children by their social workers, such as computers. If children are placed in a state-operated psychiatric facility, the state either returns the majority of the benefit or the federal government reduces the monthly payment to $30.
Clark County also collects children’s benefits and applies them to services.
Fortunately, a solution may be in the offing in the form of a congressional bill that would bar governmental agencies from taking children’s benefits to offset their public expenses, and require states to fully inform children and their attorney about their benefits. Also, protected trust accounts would have to be established for the benefits, which would be held until the recipients reach adulthood.
We strongly encourage Nevada’s congressional lawmakers to support this bill.