By Rachel White
The #MeToo movement has shaken Annapolis this legislative session, with more attention on how our laws and policies are protecting – or failing – the most vulnerable among us. On Feb. 8, advocates testified on legislation that would tackle a malicious form of financial abuse – the ongoing theft by the state government of Social Security benefits intended for foster youth.
The federal benefits legislation (SB291/HB524) introduced by state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno (D-Montgomery) and Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) would require the state to set aside a portion of the Social Security benefits being distributed to foster youth as they prepare to age out of the system.
Currently, the Department of Human Services is applying for federal benefits, such as Social Security Disability and Social Security Survivor benefits, for abused and neglected children who are living outside their homes. However, rather than using that child’s benefits for additional services for that child, they are using the money to reimburse the state for the cost of their placement.
Both the Social Security program operations manual and subsequent case law speak to the responsibility of the state to ensure that benefits received for a beneficiary are, in fact, used in the best interests of the beneficiary. The rampant practice by states of taking the benefit money led the Social Security Advisory Board in January to release a report urging states to change their behavior.
The report flagged that foster care agencies’ self-reimbursement practices of taking foster children’s funds conflict with their fiduciary obligation only to serve the best interests of their beneficiaries.
Preparing foster youth to live successful, stable and independent adult lives upon leaving the child welfare system is essential and certainly in their best interest. There is a tragically close relationship between homelessness and foster care involvement. In the 2015 Youth Reach count of homeless youth in Maryland, 21 percent of the unaccompanied homeless youth had been in foster care. This number is even higher than the national data that shows that foster youth who have aged out of foster care have a 1 in 11 chance of experiencing homelessness.
Maryland currently has 4,709 abused and neglected children living in out-of-home placements. In 2017, 344 youth aged out of the system. Most of these 21 year olds do not have any stable adults in their life to rely on; few, if any, have completed their college education; and some have not even finished their high school education. Almost none of these youth have any savings.
If even a fraction of these youth had their benefits saved in an account for them to access when they left foster care, they would have additional financial resources to ensure that their outcomes are not so grim.
Hopefully, this legislative session – full of a new awareness over the need to protect our vulnerable children – the General Assembly will put the needs for Maryland’s foster youth over the state’s budgetary requirements and allow foster youth to put their federal benefits into savings accounts to help ease their transition to living as independent adults.
Rachel White is the child welfare policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a statewide non-profit focused on improving the lives and experiences of Maryland’s children through policy change and program improvement. She can be reached at [email protected] or 410-547-9200, ext. 3019.