March 26, 2011; Source: Star-Tribune | Critics of current foster care policies in New York are accusing child welfare agencies of illegally confiscating foster children’s government benefits. The focus of the controversy is a common national practice – state agencies taking control of Social Security benefits that are earmarked for foster children with disabilities or a disabled or deceased parent.

The agencies, already struggling with restricted budgets, claim they are entitled to the money to help cover basic needs and foster care expenses. But critics believe the money should be managed in ways that best support the youth after they turn 18 and are out of the foster care system.

A new report, “The Fleecing of Foster Children,” was released on Wednesday by First Star, a national nonprofit which advocates for abused children, and the University of San Diego School of Law’s Children Advocacy Institute. It urges Congress to mandate changes and supports legislation that Rep. Pete Stark (D- Calif.), will soon introduce.

The Foster Children Self Support Act, Rep. Stark’s bill, would require agencies to screen all foster children for Social Security eligibility, notify their attorney or guardian regarding status, and be required to develop individual plans and accounts for each eligible child. After leaving foster care, youth could use Social Security assets for housing, education or job training expenses.

This assistance could help reduce the high rates of homelessness, unemployment and substance abuse among the estimated 30,000 youths who age out of foster care each year without a permanent family.

Coinciding with this report is a lawsuit in Baltimore alleging that the county social service agency illegally used a foster youth’s social security benefits as reimbursement for the costs of basic care.

Amy Harfeld, policy consultant with the Children’s Advocacy Institute, said that agencies are being financially strapped to the point of desperation, and foster kids are easy targets. Federal and state officials say they are following established regulations.

First Star’s report also notes that foster children are frequent victims of identity theft because their Social Security numbers circulate widely among relatives, foster parents and agency employees, all having access to the personal information. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) is working on a bill to curtail this problem.—Nancy Knoche