A bill recently introduced in Washington, D.C., would stop the local government from applying for federal benefits on behalf of foster youth and use the money to pay for their time in foster care.
The Preserving Our Kids’ Equity Through Trusts Amendment Act of 2022, or POKETT Act was introduced by District of Columbia’s Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in an effort to provide stability in the financial lives of foster care youth aging out of the system.
“I regularly hear concerns from youth in foster care about their financial stability as they become independent,” said Nadeau in her press release. “It turns out, we already have a mechanism to provide them with a nest egg, and with this legislation, we will ensure those funds are available to them.”
Since federal survivor and disability benefits are the property of the youth under federal law, the POKETT Act would ensure that the funds would be put in protected accounts for them to access after a foster youth leaves care to provide a smoother transition to financial independence.
The policy of using children’s federally owed payments from the Supplemental Security Income and Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance to pay for the costs of their time in foster care has been challenged by youth advocates and foster youth who’ve had their payments taken from them, leaving them with financial burdens and instability after they leave care.
Similar laws and policies in Minnesota, Alaska, Maryland, Nebraska and New York City would limit this practice of seizing foster youth’s federal benefits.
Nadeau’s release said Los Angeles has also taken action against this issue affecting its foster youth. With the newest introduced by Nadeau in D.C., this bill would provide “the most robust protection of any legislation introduced to date,” the release said.
Nationwide, between 10% and 20% of foster youth are eligible for the payments, which average roughly $700 per month, but some child welfare agencies use the funds without notifying the youth and without offering an option to select another payee, like a close adult or relative.
Joint investigations by NPR and The Marshall Project last year found that children in 49 states and Washington, D.C., were experiencing seizure of benefits to pay for their stays in foster care. In 2018 alone, the total diverted from foster youth was over $165 million, according to the outlets.
“The District of Columbia is one of 37 jurisdictions in which foster care agencies identify orphaned and disabled children in care as sources of potential revenue, apply for benefits on their behalf, and then use the children’s money to pay for the costs of care,” Nadeau said in a statement of introduction of the bill. She added that totals about $1 million each year and once a child leaves foster care, the remaining balance is returned to the Social Security Administration. At times, they leave owing Social Security because their federal benefits have been seized.
“The POKETT Act replaces the dollars appropriated from children’s own pockets with local funding, ensuring that no child will experience deceased services as a result of no longer being forced to pay for their own care,” the introduction states.
The local policy would require the conservation of children’s benefits in funding so as to not jeopardize future eligibility for assistance. Foster youth would get training in financial literacy and management before accessing their rightful benefits, which they could use for housing, education or child care costs or anything else to help ensure healthy transitions out of care.
Judith Sandalow, executive director of Children’s Law Center, which also collaborated on the bill, said in the release, “This legislation is a smart solution that will help more DC families access their federal benefits and save funds for children in foster care,” said Sandalow. “It will build a much-needed financial cushion for older foster youth as they transition into adulthood and provide resources that will keep children out of foster care.”