(CALMATTERS) — When she was 15 and had been a ward of the courts for half her life, Kristina Tanner learned the cost of her stays in group homes and with foster families was coming out of her own pocket.
She had qualified for monthly survivor benefits checks, a Social Security program for children whose parents had died.
Instead of the hundreds of dollars a month going to her or toward savings, it went to Butte County, she said, to cover checks issued to her foster care providers.
Now Tanner, who works three part-time jobs while attending Sacramento State University, wonders why the government needed to take her money.
“You’re pretty much saying I’m paying for my time in care, and there’s other people that are getting their time in care for free,” she said. “It’s not like we have our parents to fall back on.”
California county child welfare agencies regularly reimburse themselves for caring for foster youth by applying for and taking the children’s Social Security benefits — money that advocates say should instead be going to the children.
Some children in foster care have disabilities and are from low-income families, qualifying them for a Social Security program called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Others are like Tanner, eligible for survivor benefits because one or both of their parents died.
The state does not track how much money is withheld from these children, who make up a fraction of California’s 55,000 foster kids.
In Los Angeles County, which cares for about a third of the state’s foster children, the Department of Children and Family Services receives the benefits of about 600 children in its custody in any given month. Last year $5.4 million of children’s SSI and survivor benefits went toward defraying foster care costs, DCFS said.
Advocates say taking the money hurts young people who are most in need of financial support, while it covers only a drop in the bucket of California’s child welfare system, which consumes nearly $5 billion in federal, state and local funds a year.
State and county child welfare officials say they’re using the money as intended – to provide for foster children as if they were their parents.
Federal dollars only pay for foster care for some children whose families meet strict poverty criteria, and states and counties must pay the full costs for other kids in their custody.
The Social Security benefits, when they’re available, are viewed as an offset of those costs.
“It’s not debatable that the government is required to pay for the upkeep of a child; it’s a legal obligation the state takes on when they remove a child” from their home, said Amy Harfeld, national policy director for the San Diego-based Children’s Advocacy Institute. “In this particular case they are so hungry to minimize their own financial liability that they are identifying assets belonging to the child,” she said.
But when young adults age out of foster care they are often at greater risk poverty and homelessness. One long-term study in California found in 2020 that a quarter of former foster care youth reported sleeping in shelters or being temporarily unhoused since exiting foster care.
Tanner said Butte County, as her guardian, took her survivor benefits of about $1,200 a month until she graduated high school and was no longer eligible for them. The money likely totaled tens of thousands of dollars over her time in state custody.
Now at 21 she has aged out of the state’s extended foster care system.
“Those benefits … would have been a game changer,” she said. “I would, if I had those funds, be able to support myself … It could be sitting in [an account] that’s just growing for you. It could be retirement.”
The average California child receiving Social Security supplemental income gets less than $800 a month. Those receiving survivor benefits get about $980 monthly.
A growing number of states are considering ending the practice of taking this money as reimbursements. In 2018, Maryland passed a law requiring the state to set aside Social Security checks for foster youth to use in the future. New York City’s child welfare agency said it would do the same this year.
Similar legislation was proposed in Philadelphia and in Nebraska, Minnesota and Texas. And Alaska was embroiled in a class action lawsuit over the issue last year, according to a report by The Marshall Project and NPR.
California has not proposed ending it, despite the state’s recent focus on financial safety nets for foster youth.
Lawmakers did pass a $1,000 tax credit for former foster youth last month, and last year they started a $35 million program to fund direct cash payments to low-income residents — with a preference for aiding former foster youth.
The state has made other moves to stop intercepting payments from poor families. Starting in 2025 California plans to phase out a longtime practice of “recouping” child support payments from families that also receive cash welfare.
Even so, state and county officials said taking Social Security benefits is perfectly legal.
“Neither federal nor state law prohibits the offsetting of foster care benefits for youth,” said Scott Murray, California Department of Social Services spokesman. “The county may use those funds for the youth’s daily care and maintenance.”
Butte County’s Department of Employment and Social Services officials refused to answer questions about Tanner’s case.
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How much money is taken?
CalMatters contacted several other counties with high foster care caseloads about the practice. Besides Los Angeles, three others responded.
Kern County said it reimbursed itself last year more than $313,000 with Social Security benefits from 56 youth and that amount has been higher in previous years.
In its latest fiscal year, San Diego County reimbursed itself about $137,000 in benefits from 13 foster youth, the county reported.
San Francisco’s Human Services Agency hired a company to apply for benefits on foster youths’ behalf. A 2019 memo requesting a contract extension, said the agency was handling the benefits of 67 youth and “applies the SSI to placement costs in the majority of situations or gives directly to the caregiver.”
State law requires counties to receive the money on the child’s behalf if no alternative exists. However, federal regulations set up a preference for a parent, relative or close friend to receive the money and use it in the child’s best interest, if possible.
Social Security spokesperson Patricia Raymond said the agency monitors foster care agencies’ use of the benefits.
In the state budget Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last month, lawmakers included new requirements that counties help young adults transitioning out of foster care apply for Social Security benefits.
And the L.A. County Board of Supervisors last year passed a resolution to ensure that county welfare officials set up bank accounts for foster youth to receive the benefits when they age out.
Some youth advocates want counties to screen foster children for eligibility for benefits. Without that help through the arduous application process, they say eligible youth will miss out on the money in adulthood.
Taking the money while the youth are still in foster care, some advocates say, is the counties’ financial incentive to apply.
“Counties understand this as a way to get kids connected to federal benefits but also maximize federal funding streams,” said Sabrina Forte, director of policy and impact litigation at the Alliance for Children’s Rights. “We just want the counties to be talking about this with the kids.”
Tanner, the Sacramento State student, said she found out about her survivor benefits by chance.
Tanner’s mother died of breast cancer when Tanner was 6, and she was removed from her father’s custody when she was 7. She said she remembers he was in a deep depression, she missed a lot of school, and she and her siblings were taken out of a filthy house.
When she was 11, she was on the way to see him when the visit was abruptly canceled because he had died. She learned only recently that it was cancer.
By the time she was 15, Tanner had crisscrossed the state, moved from foster home to group home to juvenile detention center. She had just moved into another placement in Chico when her new guardian got a check in the mail from the Social Security Administration.
“This check is different from every other check my foster parents get,” Tanner recalled. “It had a little memo, it said ‘Survivor Benefits.'”
A few months later, the typical payments from Butte County to her new foster parent resumed. Throughout high school, Tanner said, she contacted her social workers, Butte County officials, the state and the Social Security Administration. She learned the federal government had been sending her survivors benefits to child welfare agencies since 2011, the year her father died.
“They said as a ward of the court they get it, because technically they’re my guardians,” she said of the county officials.
‘Nobody to fall back on’
If counties have money left over after taking a reimbursement, state law says they should set it aside to use in the child’s best interests.
Tanner said she never saw any of it.
When money was tight in her foster homes, she remembers asking the county for funds to pay to play basketball or enroll in other activities at school and was told to apply for grants from nonprofits.
When she turned 18, she asked Butte County to send her the survivors benefits directly, she said. But because she was part of the extended foster care program, she remained in the county’s care.
Now a rising senior studying biomedical sciences, Tanner said she barely can afford her rent in Sacramento. She wants to apply for medical school and become a trauma doctor, inspired by childhood trips to the hospital when her mother underwent cancer treatment.
“She was strong-willed,” she said of her mother, memorialized in a tattoo on her forearm. “Because of my situation and having nobody to fall back on, it’s like you’re pretty much out here on your own. So your choice is to fail or not to fail.”
This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.
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