In Los Angeles, the County Board of Supervisors has taken a step to make sure foster youth who receive Social Security benefits are actually able to use that money — a move that is exceedingly rare nationwide.
The board unanimously passed a motion this week requiring the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to make sure foster youth who receive Social Security benefits have access to those checks when they age out of the system. The vast majority of state and county child welfare agencies across the country routinely take these benefits for themselves, often without notifying the youth or a family member, a recent investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project found.
It's estimated that 10 to 20 percent of foster children and youth are eligible for Social Security benefits — because they have a disability or a parent has a disability, or because a parent has died. Those checks can amount to several hundred dollars a month or more.
State and county child welfare offices, the NPR investigation found, take the checks as reimbursement for room, board and other services they provide to the foster youth — even though the agencies are required to provide those services by federal law and other foster youth are not required to reimburse agencies for their care.
When foster youth age out of care, at 18 or up to 21 in many states, they often leave with little money. That's one reason large numbers of former foster care youth quickly experience homelessness — some 36 percent in one study— and many end up in jail and few complete college.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, co-sponsor of the motion, said the new directive is intended to reverse those poor outcomes for foster care youth.
"It's a game changer for their life," she told NPR. "Many of these youngsters ... as they transition out of our services, end up becoming homeless unless they have financial support. And we need to break that cycle."
Los Angeles has more children in foster care than most states. There are some 33,000 children in foster care there, about half the total in all of California.
The motion is an interim step. It tells the county child welfare agency to "ensure" that an interest-bearing bank account is set up for all foster youth who get Social Security benefits so that they can have access to the money "upon exit from foster care."
The motion also required state agencies to report back within 30 days with data — on how much is collected in Social Security benefits and where that money goes. California state law already requires bank accounts to be established for foster youth, but Sue Abrams of the Children's Law Center of California says their attorneys "are noticing it's not happening on a regular basis."
Abrams said the action by the supervisors is a "great step" to figure out if additional policy changes need to be made to assure that foster youth get access to their Social Security benefits.
The pandemic, she says, has heightened the financial challenges that children in foster care face. Those Social Security checks, Abrams says, are "a critical benefit for anybody and especially for youth leaving foster care."
In 2018, Maryland passed a law — the only state in the country — that requires that Social Security checks be set aside for youth in foster care. Forty percent of the check is set aside when the youth turns 14, and then 100% from age 18.
There is also a move in Congress to create a similar federal law. Rep. Danny Davis, a Democrat from Chicago, is working on a new version of legislation he has introduced in the past that would require child welfare agencies to screen foster children and youth to find who are eligible for Social Security benefits, to apply for that funding, and then to put that money aside in a bank account for the foster child or youth.