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Minnesota counties receive millions in federal foster child benefits

Monica Stevens, 23, of St. Paul, must choose between paying her heating bill and buying food and diapers for her 2-year-old daughter.

Nathan Thomas, 20, of Grand Rapids, lives in a cramped motel room with his girlfriend and newborn daughter because he lacks money for rent and transportation to work.

And Anthony Jackson, 18, of Bloomington. postponed his dream of going to performing arts school because he cannot afford tuition and has no parents to support him.

These young adults share a common fate: They are among hundreds of former young adoptees in Minnesota who are struggling to make ends meet because county agencies took their federal benefits without telling them.

As part of a longstanding practice, Minnesota counties withhold monthly Social Security payments from adoptive children whose parents have died or become disabled, and instead use the money to offset the cost of county foster care. . Based on new data, child advocacy groups estimate that each year between $6 million and $11 million in federal payments are taken from some 1,400 young adoptees across the state.

From Mankato to Duluth, former adoptees have said they feel betrayed and abandoned by county welfare agencies charged with protecting them. Most said they were never told of the benefits and only heard about them by chance years after their parents died. The money, which averages around $700 a month, could have been a crucial lifeline – helping them with rent, tuition, transportation, therapy and other expenses during their transition to adulthood.

Now, an emerging coalition of foster kids, child protection advocates and civil rights lawyers are pushing to end the practice — which they say amounts to theft and exacerbates economic difficulties that many young people in foster care face. A bill to be introduced early next year would safeguard these funds for young people by placing them in individual trust accounts, which foster children could access at the age of 18. The legislation also draws inspiration from similar laws in Connecticut, Hawaii, Nebraska and Texas. like Philadelphia and the District of Columbia.

“It’s theft, plain and simple,” said Hoang Murphy, executive director of Foster Advocates, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that has lobbied to end the practice. “How can these agencies say they serve children when they take the very money that would get them started in life?”

In Minnesota, as in most states, local agencies routinely take control of a child’s Social Security survivor and disability benefits by asking to be their financial representatives (known as “representative beneficiaries”) with the state. Federal Social Security Administration. Federal law requires that these financial representatives act in the best interests of the adoptive children, but the money is often taken without the young adoptees ever knowing. In 2018 alone, local child welfare agencies collected more than $165 million in Social Security benefits owed to young adoptees, according to a national survey conducted by Child Trends, a Washington, D.C. research group. .

Although these payments represent only a fraction of county budgets, they are extremely important in encouraging young people to enter adulthood. Every year, dozens of young people in Minnesota have to leave foster care and stop receiving benefits because they grow too old — a transition known as “aging out” of care. Many are left to fend for themselves with little or no support, prolonging the trauma they endured during childhood separated from their biological parents.

The practice of taking advantage disproportionately affects young people of color, who are vastly overrepresented in Minnesota’s foster care system. In 2020, black children in Minnesota were 2.4 times more likely to be separated from their biological parents than white children; Native American children were 16.4 times more likely, according to the state’s most recent data.

“These are children who have already been deeply traumatized by the loss of a parent and deserve our support,” said State Rep. Dave Pinto, a DFLer from St. Paul, chair of the House Early Childhood Finance Committee. and Policy and authored the legislation that would place profits in trust accounts. “They certainly don’t deserve to be expelled from the [foster care] system with insufficient resources to take care of themselves.

A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Social Services, which oversees the foster care system, said federal payments go directly to counties and the agency does not track how funds are spent.

In Hennepin County, home to the largest foster child population in the state, benefit income is significant. Between 2019 and 2021, Hennepin collected nearly $1.5 million in survivor and disability benefits from foster children, which are used to offset the cost of their care. Each year, between 100 and 150 foster youth in Hennepin are eligible for benefits, representing less than 12 percent of the county’s out-of-home youth population, according to county data.

Kwesi Booker, director of child and family services for Hennepin County, disputed claims that the benefits are “stolen,” saying the county uses the funds to pay for the cost of housing, medical care and other expenses for youth in foster care. “I don’t think it’s as serious as saying that it’s money that’s being taken out of these kids’ mouths,” Booker said. “We use it to help support children.”

Yet, for many child welfare advocates, denial of these benefits actually means that children who are removed from their birthplace are forced to pay for their own foster care – a public service that agencies are required to pay under state law.

“It makes me sad and angry because so much of my childhood has already been stolen from me,” said Stevens, whose mother was murdered when she was 8 and who has spent most of her childhood to alternate between foster families. “And now you’ve gone and taken something that would have helped immensely to settle in life and support my child.”

Daniel Hatcher, a University of Baltimore law professor and expert on the practice, said this has gone largely unnoticed for decades, in part because foster children have become a “source of income” for the counties, which are reluctant to lose the money. “Kids aren’t supposed to pay for their own foster care,” Hatcher said. “It’s absurd and inhumane at best.”

In interviews, some youth in foster care said the funds withheld could have saved them years of financial hardship, anxiety and even homelessness.

Ada Smith, 24, of Minneapolis, recalls being unable to buy basic items like diapers and clothes for her toddler son when she was released from foster care. She was also unable to work or go to college because she could not afford child care and had no family who could help take care of her child. baby, she said. Smith would spend two years shuttling between homeless shelters before finding a stable place to live.

Years later, Smith becomes visibly angry when she thinks back on that precarious time. She calculates that she should have received at least $18,000 in survivor benefits because her mother died when Smith was a teenager. “For too long I lived in survival mode because the county didn’t trust me with the money I was entitled to,” said Smith, who has two children, ages 3 and 7, and works for Connections to Independence, a non-profit organization that helps young people coming out of foster care.

Jackson, whose mother died when he was 12, said he never would have known about the money had it not been for a chance conversation. A writer and performing artist, Jackson was chatting with his girlfriend about how he could afford tuition and board at his “dream college” – a performing arts school in Atlanta. Suddenly, his girlfriend’s mother asked him if he was receiving federal survivor benefits. Jackson did some research and learned that he should have received $22,000 in Social Security payments while in foster care.

When Jackson contacted the county, he was told the money was already spent and he “couldn’t touch it,” he said.

“I never imagined that a system that was supposed to help kids was really stealing from them from the start,” he said.

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