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These kids used to get the bill for their own foster care. Now that's changing

Teresa Casados runs New Mexico's Children, Youth & Families Department. She discovered the state had been taking the Social Security checks of children in foster care — children who got the benefits because they were orphaned or disabled.
Children, Youth & Families Department
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State of New Mexico
Teresa Casados runs New Mexico's Children, Youth & Families Department. She discovered the state had been taking the Social Security checks of children in foster care — children who got the benefits because they were orphaned or disabled.

To Teresa Casados, who runs the department in charge of child welfare in New Mexico, it seemed like an odd question. At a legislative hearing in July, a lawmaker asked her if the state was taking the Social Security checks of kids in foster care — the checks intended for orphans and disabled children.

"My reaction really was: That can't be right," said Casados, who in the spring took over as acting secretary of New Mexico's Children, Youth & Families Department. "That can't be a practice that we're doing."

Casados and her chief legal counsel drove back to the office. "When we got back, we looked into it and found out it was a practice that the agency had for using those benefits — and had been going on for quite some time."

A 2021 investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project found this practice was the rule across the country. The investigation led to calls for reform. Now, 15 states and cities have taken steps to preserve the money of foster youth. Several other state legislatures are considering similar laws.

And last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration sent a letter to state and local child welfare agencies to encourage these changes.

The NPR/Marshall Project investigation found that in at least 49 states and the District of Columbia, when young people go into foster care child, welfare agencies routinely look for which ones come with Social Security checks. Or, if the children are eligible, agencies sign them up for benefits. Then state agencies cash those checks — usually without telling the child or their family, the investigation found.

States claim the money as reimbursement for the costs of foster care. But governments already have an obligation to pay the costs of foster care under state and federal laws. The result is that only impoverished kids, who receive Social Security benefits because they're orphans or because they're disabled or their parents are disabled, get a bill for their own foster care.

About 10% to 20% of children and youths in foster care are thought to be eligible for Social Security benefits. A child whose mother or father has died is eligible for survivors benefits, intended to replace some of the lost wages of the deceased parent. Another Social Security program, Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, pays a stipend to disabled children and adults.

Just days after that legislative hearing in New Mexico, Casados says her department "sent out a directive to cease using those funds for care and support." It pledged to start putting aside the Social Security benefits checks for foster children to have when they go back to their families or age out of foster care.

Casados says saving that money and teaching youths how to manage it is important: "This could be really life changing for some of these kids," she said.

It matters because most youths leave foster care with little or no money. Few can pay for college. Many end up jobless or homeless.

Helping children save their Social Security money is not simple for child welfare agencies, which need to set up separate accounts, including ones that don't penalize youths who get means-tested benefits.

A recipient of SSI — the maximum amount in 2023 is $914 — is not allowed to accumulate more than $2,000 in assets or savings. The letter to child welfare agencies explained ways to avoid that limit.

"We're, in many ways, setting the stage for folks to really be thinking differently about how to do this," says Rebecca Jones Gaston, the commissioner of the federal Administration on Children, Youth and Families and co-author of the letter. "We want young people transitioning out of foster care to have what they need to move into adulthood successfully."

Some child welfare advocates say the letter from Washington is a good first step, but they're disappointed that it didn't do more.

"The administration missed a leadership opportunity," says Amy Harfeld of the Children's Advocacy Institute, "to clarify once and for all that it is never in a child's best interest for their money and assets to be used by a public agency without their notice for the agency's own gain."

Harfeld says change is coming "from across the political spectrum," most recently in Arizona, Oregon and New Mexico, and in major cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Foster youth are paying attention, too. Justin Kasieta, who is 22 now, was just 13 when his father died and he was thrust into a role looking after his four younger siblings.

"I would walk down to the store and buy food for my siblings occasionally, or whatever other needs we may have had."

So he knew the family's finances, and that their income came from Social Security — from survivors benefits checks.

It helped them get by in their small town on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

A couple of years later, Kasieta went into foster care and the state of Michigan took his checks to reimburse the cost of that care.

That didn't seem right to Kasieta.

"The main argument would be that it's not fair to make kids who are orphaned or disabled have to pay for their own foster care," he says. "But then kids who are not orphaned or disabled, they receive taxpayer dollars to cover their foster care?"

Kasieta relied upon scholarships and grants to go to college. He says those Social Security checks could have helped.

Last month, he graduated from the University of Michigan. He has job possibilities in finance and in government.

And he's advocating for a bill in front of the legislature in Michigan — to save Social Security benefits for children and youths in foster care.

"If the goal is to make success stories like mine the rule, instead of the exception, I think that we need to support kids all the way through from the time they are in foster care to the time they exit foster care and even beyond that," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.