Foster parent abstract concept vector illustration. Foster care, father in adoption, happy interracial family, having fun, together at home, childless couple, adopted child abstract metaphor.

Editorial: State must return foster youths’ federal benefits

States, including Washington, have used those benefits, rather than hold them until adulthood.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s a practice entrenched over decades and widespread among states, but also one that has gained more visibility and opposition in recent years: States — including Washington — that intercept Social Security and other federal benefits that are meant for children and youths in state foster care systems.

Across the country about 10 percent of foster youth — 12 percent in Washington state — are eligible for deceased parents’ Social Security, disability or military benefits for parents who died while on active duty. The Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego estimates that nationally there are about 40,000 to 80,000 foster youths who are eligible for more than $900 a month.

Instead, once youths enter into foster care systems, states apply to the Social Security Administration and make themselves the beneficiaries; on behalf of the children. Sometimes, as in Washington state, that money goes to the agency responsible for foster care as reimbursement for the care it provides; other times it just goes to a state’s general fund.

But by comparison, parents of youths in foster care and foster youths themselves aren’t charged by the state for their care; only those due a federal benefit are paying states for that care.

And often, the children, newly in foster care, aren’t made aware of the diversion of funds.

“What the state is doing is taking their money behind their backs and spending it for themselves,” Amy Harfeld, national policy director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute told the Washington State Standard this week. “Foster children are not a revenue stream.”

The institute recently released a report that found the practice was nearly ubiquitous nationwide; last year only Arizona and the District of Columbia had recently adopted legislation to end the practice, while a handful of states were on a path toward repeal.

In the report, Arizona and Washington, D.C., each received A grades, followed by B grades for New Mexico and Oregon. Washington state, Illinois and Maryland earned C’s. The remaining 44 states received failing grades.

Washington’s C recognized recent reforms and a proposal last year to end the practice that was not adopted by the full Legislature; a passing grade that encourages additional effort.

Here’s why:

The transition from foster care to adulthood, notes the report, presents harsh challenges for youths in obtaining education, employment and housing. Additionally, those challenges are amplified for foster youths in the Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities, who are over-represented among foster youths.

Daniel Lugo, manager for policy and government relations for Treehouse, a Seattle-based advocacy group that works with foster youths, put a finer point on those challenges last year during testimony before a state House committee.

About a third of foster youths experience homelessness by the time they reach the age of 21, Lugo said; 1 in 4 are arrested within a year of aging out of the foster care system; and 80 percent of foster care youths suffer significant behavioral health issues, compared to 18 percent to 22 percent of the general population.

“It is clear that our dependent youth are struggling and need our support. We appreciate the state’s interest in pursuing sustainable costs of care, but it should not come at the expense of vulnerable dependent youth who receive SSI or other public benefits,” he said. “Those benefits are intended for their well-being and should not be garnished by the state in any way.”

Lugo was speaking on behalf of legislation that would have ended the practice of using a foster youth’s benefits to reimburse the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, which administers the state’s foster care program.

The legislation, House Bill 1405, also would have established a work group to consider policies and a timeline for the agency to end the practice by July 2027. The work group would have considered how to conserve funds for foster youths’ future use, the age at which youths would have access to the funds and how best to use those funds to the benefit of foster youths.

Notably, the legislation had the support of the agency. Allison Crutsinger, director of public affairs for DCYF, spoke at the same committee hearing and urged passage of the legislation, noting the need for the program’s implementation to protect the assets of foster youths.

While the bill passed the House that year, and had a hearing before the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, the legislation didn’t advance out of committee and wasn’t acted on further this year.

The Children’s Advocacy Institute’s Harfeld questioned the state’s hesitancy to make the change.

“Other states have done this and are implementing it right now. It’s not mysterious, it’s not impossible,” she told the Washington State Standard. “Anytime you’re accustomed to taking someone else’s money and you have to stop, you’re going to have to deal with the repercussions of that,” she said.

The Legislature’s next session in 2025, a budget year, allows another reconsideration of the practice, which will have a budget impact. The state will have to subtract those benefits from its revenue and add more of the cost of care for those foster youths, but lawmakers and taxpayers should consider those additional costs as an investment in the youths entrusted to the state’s care.

That $900 a month — invested on behalf of youths while in foster care, then returned to them at adulthood with some guidance on how to use it toward their greatest benefit — can make far more difference to them and the state than it does now.

It is, after all, their money.

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