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Movement Grows For States To Give Back Federal Funds Owed To Foster Children

NOEL KING, HOST:

Kids who are in foster care age out of the system, and many of their lives become even more difficult. Around 1 in 3 experience homelessness. An investigation by NPR and The Marshall Project found that many of these young people are entitled to federal funds that could help them, but many did not know that, and the money was taken. Now there's a push to give them that money back. Here's NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Daniel Hatcher is a law professor at the University of Baltimore. And several years ago, he represented a young woman in Maryland. She'd been in foster care, but when foster care ended, she was on her own.

DANIEL HATCHER: She was homeless, back and forth, sometimes staying with friends. She would find temporary shelter. She was constantly struggling to find work, struggling with debt.

SHAPIRO: That's common for young people who, at 18 or up to 21 in many states, age out of foster care, usually with little or no money.

HATCHER: And I feared for her safety.

SHAPIRO: Hatcher went to court with the woman after she discovered she did have money once. She was getting a monthly Social Security check, but the state of Maryland took it.

HATCHER: Kids, unfortunately, are actually paying for their own foster care.

SHAPIRO: An NPR investigation with The Marshall Project found that state foster care agencies routinely take the Social Security benefits from the youth in their care - at least $165 million a year. That's according to unpublished data NPR obtained from the research group Child Trends. Here's how it works. Youth in foster care are entitled to Social Security benefits if they or a parent have a significant disability or if a parent has died - several hundred dollars a month or sometimes more. States figure out which kids are eligible, then signs them up for those benefit checks. But the state takes that money, often without telling the child or their family.

HATCHER: Children - children who are disabled or have dead parents, right? That's not who we should be taking money from to fund our foster care system.

SHAPIRO: In Maryland, a court rejected the claim of Hatcher's client.

HATCHER: They argued by the time she appealed, it was too late.

SHAPIRO: This case and others angered Hatcher. He and his law students went to the state legislature in Maryland asking for change. Directors of state child welfare agencies told us they don't get a lot of pushback for taking the Social Security checks, partly because a small percentage of foster youth get these checks, maybe 10%, partly because the practice of taking those benefits has been so routine for so long and partly because they say it's money that goes to the child welfare system, which helps that child.

TRENEE PARKER: We use the money to offset the daily living cost of a child in care...

SHAPIRO: Trenee Parker is Delaware's child welfare director.

PARKER: ...Which is, in my opinion, really no different than what happens if you are a parent who has a child who receives Social Security benefits.

SHAPIRO: Social Security has said to states it's OK to take those checks. The U.S. Supreme Court has said so, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The opinion of the court in number 01-1420 Washington State Department of Social and Health Services...

SHAPIRO: That case involved a foster child named Dan Keffeler from a tiny town in Washington state. He was 12 when his mother died in a car accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This case comes to us on writ of certiorari...

SHAPIRO: Keffeler claimed the state violated his constitutional rights when it cashed his Social Security checks. In 2003, the Supreme Court allowed the state to take the check. The high court ruled on a narrow statutory issue. Advocates for children were split. Some liked that underfunded child welfare agencies would get added funding.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

DAN KEFFELER: Hello. This is Dan.

SHAPIRO: I tracked down that former foster youth, Dan Keffeler, and his attorney, Rodney Reinbold, and reconnected them after many years on the phone.

RODNEY REINBOLD: Hello, Dan, how are you doing?

KEFFELER: Awesome. Hey, Ron, long time no talk to.

REINBOLD: (Laughter) I know. I think the last time I saw you was either at your graduation or the Supreme Court argument. Which was first?

KEFFELER: The Supreme Court argument.

SHAPIRO: Even though the Supreme Court ruled against Keffeler, he got his Social Security money because he'd won in the state court, and the state of Washington gave him that money.

REINBOLD: What are you doing now?

SHAPIRO: The difference that money made is clear, as the former foster youth and his former lawyer catch up.

KEFFELER: I decided I need to finish some more schooling. So I went back and got my doctorate in chiropractic.

REINBOLD: Oh, my goodness.

KEFFELER: So I'm a doctor now.

REINBOLD: So you are Dr. Keffeler.

KEFFELER: Yes. I mean, some people call me that.

REINBOLD: I will call you that from now on. You're entitled to it (laughter).

SHAPIRO: The Social Security benefits that went to Dan Keffeler helped him go to college. Fewer than 10% of foster youth will graduate from college. There were many reasons why he's succeeded - his drive, his intelligence. He'd say, having a lawyer who stood up for him, that alone gave him value. But that Social Security check made a difference, too.

DANNY DAVIS: They are entitled to it, and therefore they should receive it.

SHAPIRO: That's Congressman Danny Davis. The Illinois Democrat is the author of legislation that would bar states from taking the Social Security checks and instead require states to put the child's money into a trust account.

DAVIS: So they've got a little nest egg. They've got a little something to start with when they age out and get on their own.

SHAPIRO: One state is doing a version of that. In Maryland, advocates including that attorney Daniel Hatcher kept pushing the issue and in 2018 got a law.

HATCHER: We were able to get a bill through that at least protects part of the benefits for children 14 and older.

SHAPIRO: Now, when a foster youth in Maryland turns 14, 40% of their Social Security benefits are put into a trust account. That percentage keeps rising to 100% when they turn 18. When they leave foster care, they get that money.

MICHELLE FARR: It has to be liberating.

SHAPIRO: Michelle Farr runs child welfare in Maryland.

FARR: It's an opportunity for them to feel empowered and knowing that they were able to save and to realize the importance of future savings.

SHAPIRO: The law in Maryland is so new that the first youth are leaving foster care just now. There have been some bumps. Lawyers for foster youth say it's hard just to find out how much money has been set aside. What's starting in Maryland will be watched to see how that money can change the long odds against youth as they leave foster care.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.