BRATTLEBORO — As Vermonters, we have a responsibility to take care of the state's youngest residents, especially those children who may be abused and neglected and, as a result, enter the foster care system.
Unfortunately, our state is instead stealing from those vulnerable residents rather than caring for them and securing for each child a bright future.
The reality is that Vermont is taking approximately $1 million each year from the pockets of children in foster care who are entitled to Social Security disability and/or survivor benefits. These children are being forced, often without their knowledge, to literally pay for their time in foster care.
As background to what can seem like a confusing policy discussion: NPR has reported that 10% of youth in foster care are entitled to Social Security benefits, the payments are usually more than $700 per month, and this money is considered their property under federal law.
The Social Security Administration recognizes that cases “involving foster care are among the most sensitive SSA encounters” and therefore it “is essential that SSA do all it can to protect the rights of children.”
The Social Security Administration has established a specific and clear hierarchy regarding who can be a representative payee, which is a person who receives money on behalf of another. There are eight options on the list. The state isn't the first, second, or third option. In fact, the state is the seventh option - and yet, Vermont cannot (or will not) show that it investigates and gives due process to the people who make up the first six options on that list.
This is counter to Social Security Administration guidance that each case must be considered individually, that agencies should remember to consider other concerned relatives as possible payees, and that agencies should contact other possible payees and document why they are or why they are not interested in being the representative payee.
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As Vermonters, we should be asking the state to provide proof it is following these guidelines, as well as provide evidence of how the state uses the money it takes from children. These are not frivolous requests; they are part of the Social Security Administration process when representative payees are involved. The state is not immune from this process.
As a representative payee, the state takes on the role of fiduciary - that is, it is entrusted to act in a way that benefits the child, not the state. Considering Vermont is legally required to provide adequate funding for children in foster care without regard to the availability of other funding, like Social Security payments, it is doubtful the state could make an argument that a child's Social Security benefits should be used to cover the cost of housing, food, and other aspects of basic care.
Despite the legal responsibility to adequately fund foster care and the state's fiduciary role as a representative payee, a senior adviser to the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families confirmed to me it is indeed the case that youth receiving Social Security benefits are paying for their foster care placements.
This raises two questions: How is it fair for some children in foster care to be asked to pay when others are not?
And how is it in the children's best interest to use their money to fill the state's coffers instead of for their own direct needs, such as buying a bike or suitcase, funding music lessons, or purchasing any number of other items or services children in foster care frequently go without?
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I know this topic may seem wonky and mired in bureaucracy, but it has real-world consequences for children and young adults.
At the least, there is the issue of children exiting foster care without ever knowing they are eligible for benefits, so they don't apply to receive those benefits after the state is no longer their guardian.
Then there are the young people who may lose out on educational opportunities, who may not be able to buy a car that gets them reliably to and from a job, or who may find themselves evicted from their first apartment because they have no savings to help them through rough times.
Other states and cities have begun to reform, including Maryland, New York City, and Philadelphia. Now is the time to reach out to the Department for Children and Families and your legislator to let them know you're aware that Vermont is pocketing the money of children in foster care and that you want it to stop.
We owe it to Vermont's children to do better.