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San Diego County Seizing Foster Kids’ Assets to Pay For Care


San Diego, like counties across the country, confiscates the benefits of foster children as reimbursement for their care -- even though there's money already set aside for that purpose.

Most parents don’t bill their kids for their care. But child advocates say that’s exactly what government officials do to foster children.

About 30,000 children, 300 in San Diego County, turn 18 and age out of the nation’s foster-care system every year. They have a bag of clothes and a $500 stipend. Many can’t find work or are underemployed. Only 3 percent earn college degrees. Some commit suicide. Up to 40 percent end up on the streets.

But some have assets denied to them, according to a new report by the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego. Nearly a quarter of foster children are entitled to disability or survivor’s benefits until age 18 -- money their parents paid into Social Security. Yet that hundreds of dollars per month rarely makes it to the child, according to the report.

“In general, they do not receive it," said Robert Fellmeth, the institute's executive director. "It is diverted or confiscated by the county for child after child after child.”

Each year, Fellmeth said, states and counties intercept nearly $200 million in benefits that rightfully belong to foster children.

“This money is for the benefit of the children," Fellmeth said. "What the state is doing is taking the money and saying, ‘Well, we’re supporting the kid now, we’ll use it for the support of the kid’ … not something extra for the kid, but just for the support of the kid.”

In most cases, foster kids have no idea they had monthly checks coming.

“They are not told. Their attorneys are not told. The courts are not told,” Fellmeth said.

“Mark” (not his real name) was never told. He found out two years ago when he was 15. He wanted a job to save money for an apartment and pay for college when he leaves foster care. When he applied for a social security card, he learned that monthly payments had been made to him since he went into foster care since at age 4. That was in 1997. The payments came out of his father’s disability and subsequent death benefits. His father was a Vietnam Vet who suffered from schizophrenia. At the time Mark learned of the checks, they were $623 per month. He never saw a penny of the money.

“I think that’s so unfair. I think the county…they can do whatever they want," Mark said. "It’s not right to do that to kids, especially kids that don’t have much anyway. “

Mark, now 17, lives in a group home. He works at a pizza shop.

It's San Diego County's decision to take foster kids' Social Security money, a decision made by most counties across the nation. County officials refused to grant KPBS an interview. Instead, they released a statement outlining California law that a foster child’s Social Security benefits can go toward the use and benefit of the child.

But Mark’s attorney, Kriste Draper, who works at The Children’s Advocacy Institute, said the county is deliberately misinterpreting the law.

“Why would it ever be in the best interest of the child to reimburse the state for money that already must be spent on them?" she asked.

Draper said the money would be better spent on orphaned foster kids when they turn 18.

“What we don’t understand with foster kids is that safety net is not there, so this nest egg is absolutely vital," Draper said. "When he leaves, if we don’t have an apartment set up for him in San Diego, (my client) does not have a single place or person where he can go in San Diego and be safe.”

The Children’s Advocacy Institute endorses federal legislation requiring that the child be notified about the benefits and creating a trust so the money can be used for housing and education at age 18.

It is likely states will fight the legislation, just as the county resisted when Mark wanted his father’s monthly benefit checks given to him.

A judge ordered the county to set up a trust for Mark to access when he turns 18. The county challenged the order, but Mark prevailed. The judge’s order only includes checks from the time he learned of the benefits in 2009 until this May. Excluded are the 12 years of monthly checks before that. In the world of child advocacy, Mark’s case is considered a victory.

Not to Mark though.

“I feel like I have been robbed blind," he said.

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