Are Foster Kids Getting Short Changed By The System?
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
We'll hear how foster kids are generally left destitute once they age out of care. Some of the children could have nest eggs if the state didn't confiscate their assets.
The Fleecing Of Foster Children
A new report by the Children's Advocacy Institute (CAI) and First Star discusses the troubling practice of many states intercepting foster children's Social Security benefits to reimburse themselves for the cost of foster care, the common but shocking issue of ID theft and credit fraud committed against foster youth, and legislative solutions which may address these problems.
Much has been said about the challenges facing the foster care system and foster children themselves. Now it seems those challenges don't end when the kids turn 18.
Young adults "aged-out" of the foster care system have to find jobs and housing, largely through their own efforts. They have few resources to fall back on and often, they've been the victims of identity theft, making it difficult to establish credit. A new report also points out, that many local former foster children, who have been receiving benefits from the federal government never see those checks, because San Diego County is using them.
Kriste Draper, staff attorney for the Children's Advocacy Institute. She directs the Institute's Homeless Youth Outreach Project, which provides a legal clinic and related services for homeless youth in San Diego County.
KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Much has been said about the challenges facing the foster care system and foster care children themselves. Now it seems those challenges don't wend when the kids turn 18. Young adults aged out of the foster care system have to find jobs and housing, largely through their own efforts, they have few resources to fall back on, and often they have been the victims of identity theft, making it difficult to establish credit. A new report also points out that many local former foster children, who have been receiving benefits from the federal government, never see those checks because San Diego County is using them am I'd like to welcome my guests, KPBS investigative reporter, Amita Sharma, good morning, Amita.
SHARMA: Good morning, Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Kriste draper is a staff attorney for the children's advocacy institute in San Diego, she corrects the institute's homeless youth outreach project. Kriste, good morning.
DRAPER: Good morning. Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Amita, in your report, that we've heard on morning edition this morning, you discuss resources that foster children are given when they turn 18 of what are they given? Are they given money? A little bit of resources?
SHARMA: They receive a little bit of money. About a $500 stipend, and about six months before they leave social care, a social workers sits down with them, and tries to come up with a transition man for them. And part of that includes helping them billed resumes, practicing interviews with them, you know, basically teaching them how to find a job and how to get a job, and there's also what's called transitional housing available for former foster kids until the age of 21. And that's basically subsidized housing, which is similar to section eight housing.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. Take us bit, Kriste, if you will, and tell us what brings a child into the foster care system in the first place.
DRAPER: Children are removed from their home when the state feels that the children have suffered abuse and or neglect at the hands of their caretakers, and their caretakers can no locker safely provide a home for their children. And at that time, we use the State of California and the county of San Diego step in and say we request do a better job. You do not need to be exposed to anymore abuse or neglect, we are going to take care of you from now on.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet we do hear that kids in foster care sometimes have difficulty having I -- what we might call a normal childhood. Why is that?
DRAPER: Foster care, it's very hard to have a normal childhood. Many foster children, especially older foster children, teenagers, are living in group homes where there are no parents. You have shift workers coming in and out of your home. Foster children often move placements, sometimes up to ten placements over the course of their time in foster care. So they lack the stability in their home. They also live with many different families, and in group homes. They also move schools on a regular basis, sometimes up to twice each school year. So there's no consistency, they cannot join a basketball team if they move schools every six months. They can't go to prom, it's hard for them to make friends when they're moving all the time. They get bonded with one foster parent or one group home working and then they're shuttled to another one and they have to start over. It's assistant abandonment and insecurity.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So Amita, you with just told us that when kids age out of the foster care system at 18, they're given a little bit of money and some counseling and some transitional housing. But if you would, compare that experience of a foster child to a typical American kid who turns 18.
SHARMA: Yeah, and I should say when you do that comparison, it puts this all into context. From a time -- from the time that the average American kid turns 18 until they're 26, a parent spends $50,000 on that child. And then compare that again to a foster child who has $500 in their pocket. And it goes beyond that kind of support. These kids, the foster kids, if something that happens with their housing, they don't really have a place to go. When kids go off to college, most kids who don't come from foster backgrounds, when they go off to college, in the summer time, they go back to their parents' home, and many kids after college end you have moving back to their parents hope. So they've got a safety net. Foster kids don't have that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So Kriste, what goes wrong, typically, if things are going to go wrong, because there are many former foster kids who do make it of the that's an important point. But when things do go wrong, what are those typical things for former foster kids?
DRAPER: When things go wrong, when foster youth turn, and they have $500 in thirds requirement pocket, they have no family support to go to, they haven't finished high school, they don't have a job, those children end up homeless, they end up in our shelters, they end up eating dinner at our outreach centers, they end up in our food pantries, they try and collect food stamps, they try and go on welfare, they sleep under bridges. When things go bad, they go really bad for foster youth. Up to 40 percent of former foster youth have an episode of homelessness by the age of 24. That's almost half of our foster kids being homeless. We are not good parents when half of our children end up homeless.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I know Amita, you spoke to a former foster youth named Melissa, and tell us about her experience.
SHARMA: Well, her experience almost mirrors exactly what Kriste has outlined. She left foster care about our or five years ago. She's a student at gross month college, but -- and she has a part-time job as a caretaker, but she's not earning enough money to basically have her own place. And it was hike that from the beginning. As soon as she aged out. She went from friend's house to friend's house to friend's house. She did try it get an airport at one point, but she couldn't. And by 2007, she became homeless. And here she is describing what life is like for her as a homeless person.
NEW SPEAKER: We have tent cities, we're all huddled together in debts to keep warm, and laid out blankets, churches would come out on certain days and feed us food. I knew it would happen. I'm's foster kid. [CHECK AUDIO] and having nowhere to go.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Amita, you start out your report this morning with a really sort of incredible statistic about how many foster children there are in San Diego's homeless shelters.
SHARMA: Well, 300 kids age out of foster care in San Diego County. And as Kriste outlined basically I think the state statistic, that's almost 40 percent of former foster kids end up in homeless shelters.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And there are more foster kids in San Diego's homeless shelters now than veterans. And you know, usually you expect veterans have a hard time reintegrating but now foster kids beat them out in the homeless shelters. The new report they spoke with in the introduction, Kriste, was coauthored by the children's advocacy institute which you're a part of at the university of San Diego. In the report, it says the policies for supporting foster children are misguided. How are they misguided?
DRAPER: Well, this report focused on one clear policy, and that is both the State of California's and the counties within California's use of a child's Social Security benefits to reimburse itself for the children's care. In essence, what we are doing is taking a child's only financial life line and support and using that money to reimburse ourselves as the county instead of allowing that money to be saved for that child so when they turn 18, they have a nest egg for college books, for an apartment, for car insurance, for those incidentals that they don't have a family to help them with. If they had a family, maybe they wouldn't need a nest egg. But they don't have a family. And these children have Social Security benefits that are theirs in their own right. They do not belong to the county, they do not belong to the state. And right now, we are taking them to reimburse ourselves for their care. Of and that's wrong, and it's stealing.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, describe to us, please, where these benefits come from and what they're for. And how many foster kids are eligible to receive them while they're in foster care?
DRAPER: Sure. So there are two main types of benefits we're talking about. OASDI benefits are old age survivor disability insurance. And that, a foster child will receive Social Security payments in the form of OASDI payments when their parent has worked for a certain number of years and has either become disabled and can no longer work or has passed away. And when one of those two things happen, then the Social Security benefits that that parent had paid into come back to the child to help support the child. The other type of benefits we're talking about is supplemental security income. And that is SSI. And those funds are used when a child in their own right are disabled and unable to support themselves, then Social Security will provide money as well to help with their care.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what's the percentage of foster care kids who actually do receive these kinds of federal benefits?
DRAPER: So we have one federal statistic that says about six percent of all foster kids are eligible for some type of Social Security benefit. So we had almost 63000 children in our foster system in the State of California, and so you're looking at about six percent of those kids. California has also come out and said that somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of foster children aging out of care are eligible for disability benefits because they are disability --
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ah, I see. So Amita, why aren't the children who are eligible to receive these benefits actually seeing these checks?
SHARMA: Well, a lot of them don't even know about these checks. They're just simply not being told. The state notifies the county, and the county uses the money, as Kriste said, to reimburse itself for the care that it's providing for the children. I spoke with bob, the executive director of the child advocacy institute. And he described the county's confiscation of this money as criminal.
NEW SPEAKER: The correct term of law here is embezzlement. This money is for the benefit of children that's been paid into by the parents of that child. What the state is doing is it's taking the money and saying, well, we're supporting the kid now, we'll use it for the support of the kid. Not for something extra for the kid, [CHECK AUDIO] sup plant what we're already giving to the kid, and divert, essentially, to another purpose of that's embezzlement. Especially when you have a fiduciary responsibility to the bash as these people do.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So why are they able to take this money, Kriste?
DRAPER: Under federal law, as the payee, so you're holding this money in trust, the county is allowed to use those funds for the use and benefit of the child, to serve the best interests of the child. The county can taking those reimbursing itself for the care that they're -- legally, they have to provide no matter what, and they're saying that we are allowed to do that because that is within the use and benefit federal guidelines. However, it doesn't serve the best interests of the child to take a child's money, to pay for care that they don't have to pay for. We don't charge our children rent. The state has chosen to remove these children. It is our obligation to provide for their care. We are charging our kid for their upbringing.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I know, Amita, that you spoke with a representative for San Diego County about they used these benefits and why they are not passing them along to the foster children themselves. Why did they say?
SHARMA: Actually, the county declined to be interviewed about this issue.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh.
SHARMA: I spoke to them about the stipend that former foster kids received. But the county actually would not give me an interview. They basically released a statement quoting state law saying that they can use this money for the benefit of the child.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me play devil's advocate for you then, since we are all in a sense stepping in for the parents of these children, taxpayers are, and taking on the responsibility of maintaining their care, their education, their food, their clothe, etc, then whatever might come from another resource, federal government, etc, the argument could very well be made, it seems to me, that we can use that money to help, you know, help support the kids that we are supporting with taxpayer dollars, because that's taxpayer money too.
DRAPER: The difference is is these benefits aren't taxpayer money. They are money that is owed to the children because they're either disabled or their parents have earned the right for their children to recuperate these benefits. And you're right, the state does not have a lot of money now. So using this money to help pay for the foster kids' care is how they're justifying doing that, how far, when we send a child out, a former foster youth, at the age of 18, with no more than $500 in their pocket, we are setting them up for homelessness, we are setting them up for incarceration, we are setting them up to be in our emergency room. And those children cost the State of California [CHECK AUDIO] and unplanned parenting. We would be much better off and much smarter to save those dollars for those children so that they get into a home, have an opportunity to earn an education, and become tax paying citizens.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And in fact it was a recent court case that looked at this, the confiscation of these federal benefit checks and basically said, you know, they actually do belong to this particular plaintiff.
DRAPER: What state law says that you can use a child's money for thirds requirement use and benefit, it is within the context of whatever is in the child's best interest. And we need to hook at a child's immediate needs so that the food, clothing, housing, education, we also must look into their future needs. So if we know that 37 percent of our foster children end up homeless, then we need to take into account to take sure that they have money to insure that they don't end up homeless. That's part of the best interests of the child. The best interests of the child is having a home when they're 19, it's having food in their belly, and it's having an ability to go to school or to work. That's in the best interests of the child. Not reimbursing the state for care that they're legally obligated to pay for no matter what.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And let me go to you, Amita, because you made the point a little while ago that kids in the foster care program, actually most of them don't even know that they are receiving these benefits from the federal government.
SHARMA: Right, I spoke to one child, he only found out a couple of years ago when we went down to the county office to get a Social Security card because he wanted to get a job and earn money for when he did age out of the system, and it was then that he learned that he in fact had had monthly checks sent to him since 19 -- or in his name, since 1997 when he was four years old, and enter order the foster care system. And they were to the tune of hundreds of dollars, and at that time it was $623 a month.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you spoke to him, and what did he have to say about this?
SHARMA: Well, I spoke to him and he said he thought it was very unfair. Here's more of what he said.
NEW SPEAKER: I think it's so unfair. I feel like the county can do whatever they want and say they're still taking care of you, it's not right to do that to kids. Especially kids that don't have very much anyway.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so that's mark, who is commenting on the fact that he learned that the county kept benefits history to him by his father through these federal benefits. We have on the line former assembly woman, Lori Salda'a. She's calling in, good morning, Lori. How are you.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you so much for this absolutely important discussion. And I hear the frustration? The voice of the people who know from experience how so many of these children are set up to fail. And we have tried in the past in the legislature to extend the years where they can continue to get support because anyone who's parented knows that 18 is not fully adult and ready to be emancipated completely. But one concern, and I hope you can discuss it with your guests, there are a lot of parents, foster, and sadly biological parents who are stealing their own children's identity and committing identity fraud because their own credit has been destroyed because of foreclosures and bankruptcies and other problems. What do they think about establishing that foster child has their credit history checked before they are emancipated to insure that that hasn't occurred, intentionally or otherwise. More and more employers are looking at credit history, [CHECK AUDIO] without them knowing about it. And I'd appreciate that discussion.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, we're gonna be talking about that now. Thanks for the call very much, Lori. I know that's also part of your report. You wouldn't think of it, but a lot of foster kids have their identities stolen. And that only makes things harder for them when they're trying to establish themselves as young adults.
DRAPER: We have according to the identity theft resource center, up to 50 percent of foster youth ever victims of identity theft. I've personally worked with several former foster youth who have not been able to open bank accounts because their parents committed check fraud in their name when they were 11. I have had Kurd said not been able to turn on their gas and electric and their lights pause they owed over $800 to SDG&E for utilities in a home that they've never lived in. With foster youth, we don't have that one parent that's constantly looking over the shoulder, and we also have hundreds of people that have access to all of their information, foster children are shuffled between home to home in courts and attorneys, and it is very devastating for someone who's 18. It takes over 330 hours on average just to correct that fraud. And it costs that young person $850 to fix their credit. Now, if they leave foster care with own 500 doctors in their pocket, and they need over $800 to fix their credit, they're homeless even before they start.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are almost out of time, but I know that besides the origination in your report that the -- the agencies that are maintaining foster care programs set aside federal benefits in a trust fund situation for kids when they age out, you're also recommending that some sort of identity clearing that goes on before children leave the foster care system that they don't have have to put up with that.
DRAPER: California is a leader throughout the country, and we've taken that first step. We now require a social worker to actually run a credit check for a child before they actually leave foster care. But we haven't gone that extra mile yet. We don't require the social workers to actually help them correct the credit problem, and that's where we need to go when we see that there's something wrong with one of our children, we help them fix it. That's what parents do. And that's what we in the State of California need to start doing for our foster youth.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us about this, Kriste Draper is a staff attorney for the children's advocate institute here in San Diego, and Amita Sharma, KPBS investigative reporter, I want everyone to know you can hear the second part of Amita's report tomorrow on morning edition. Thank you both so much.
SHARMA: Thank you.
DRAPER: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you'd like to comment please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days.