When I was 11 years old, I lost my mother and my father was arrested for second-degree murder. With no relatives able to care for me, I was placed in foster care, where I stayed until I aged out at 18.
While other 11-year-olds were worried about video games and homework, I was grieving my parents, terrified of living with strangers, and anxious about how I would survive. I never felt so alone. I was in therapy for over a decade to help deal with the trauma, eating and behavioral issues I faced after going into foster care. Some of that trauma haunts me to this day.
I had one reason to hold onto hope. My mom honorably served in the Navy at Guantanamo Bay, and because of her death, I became eligible for her Veterans Pension benefits. This money could have been the key to helping me pay for my bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, or for my law degree at Emory University, where I am entering my second year. It could have helped me secure safe housing, stable transportation and do normal things like go on debate trips and participate in extracurricular sports.
But I never saw a red cent of my mother’s survivor benefits, or the Supplemental Security Income benefits I became eligible for after coming into care. These benefits, which my social worker bluntly told me I shouldn’t bother to pursue, would have totaled over $1,000 a month.
My faith in the system that was supposed to care for me was shattered as I realized I was in the midst of an Orwellian nightmare: government agencies pocketing money from children who were orphaned or disabled, with no accountability or transparency.
As Congress and the Biden administration just affirmed, we take care of our veterans and their families. This is a hole in that net. The financial security my mother meant to be my legacy after her proud service slipped right by me and into the hands of my new legal parent — the foster care agency — who was ultimately more concerned about its bottom line than my best interests.
I’ve learned that I was not alone in this experience. An estimated 10%-20% of foster children are eligible for such benefits. And like me, most never see a dollar. Almost every state screens children in care for benefits, some even contracting for-profit companies to advance a “revenue maximization” framework for their system. Once they identify an eligible youth, the agency applies for their benefits. This would all be fine if they used or saved the child’s money in the child’s best interest as they are supposed to do. But after benefits are awarded, the agencies appoint themselves to receive the checks, and keep the money. In 2018, states netted at least $165 million by taking benefits from over 25,000 foster children who were counting on them to prioritize their well-being.
Perhaps most shocking of all, this financial scheme all happens without ever informing the child or their lawyers of their eligibility, application or award of their benefits. Most beneficiaries in care never know they had any benefits. This money is the child’s property under federal law, and could be a lifeline for youth like me who are already facing tough odds.
If it seems hard to believe this practice is legal, that’s because it may not be. States claim they use kids’ benefits to pay for their own foster care, but foster children have no duty to pay for their own upkeep, and their benefits are supposed to cover unmet needs or be saved for their future. In fact, federal and state laws explicitly require foster care agencies to pay for all kids’ care — including those who have been orphaned or are disabled — and only allow states to manage foster kids’ accounts as a last resort.
Some states are working to correct this injustice, but most are flagrantly flouting the law and violating kids’ rights by taking their money with no notice, no accountability, and no consideration of their actual best interest. The feds have yet to step in to set things right, but a bipartisan group of congressional leaders recently said they are concerned about “reports that benefits are being used to help state budgets instead of children.”
Over the last year and a half, I have had the opportunity to meet repeatedly with the Biden administration’s teams at the Children’s Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the Social Security Administration (SSA). I explained to them how my benefits were kept from me and could have helped pay for tuition, housing, therapy and medication.
Along with other advocates and allies, I made direct requests to these agencies to clarify and enforce their rules, and to issue policy that taking foster kids’ benefits behind their backs to pay for their own foster care is not OK and will no longer be allowed. Officials I met with promised this issue was a priority for the administration. They repeatedly stated that joint guidance from both agencies was imminent.
But so far those promises have gone unfulfilled, and when pressed by a reporter, neither agency would even commit to a timeline for action. We know that the ACF can fix this if they want — because they just did so to reverse their similarly counter-intuitive policy to charge parents for foster care. With the political will, they can issue parallel policy and guidance to no longer allow agencies to charge children for their care either. SSA also has an important role to play, a set of pending requests, and the power to get on the right side of this.
While the administration delays action, some members of Congress are moving forward. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and other champions are working on a federal bill building on a previous version sponsored by Biden’s own Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra. This bill will be an important step to complement executive action and I hope will reflect some of the recommendations I made to Congress while working with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
We must hold agencies accountable for providing youth and their attorneys notice of any actions on their “behalf” related to their benefits, and protecting both their physical and financial interests. Give foster kids a chance to weigh in on who manages their money and how it is spent. Stop charging them for their own care. Young people like me know exactly how our benefits could be used in our best interest now or saved for our futures, and who we trust to help us do so. Now is the time for the administration to establish clear federal leadership to preserve the rights and assets of this particularly vulnerable population of foster youth. Its own priorities and mission statement to promote equity and economic justice for children can guide the way.