Across the country, child welfare agencies are trying to cover costs by claiming the Social Security benefits of tens of thousands of foster children. New legislation on Capitol Hill aims to give control of that money back to the children.
By the time she was 19, Shaunita Thorpe was a foster-care veteran. She had been in and out of care since she was 7. One day, her foster-care caseworker visited and happened to mention that she was supposed to be getting $607 a month.
"She was like, 'Shaunita, are you getting your money?'" she recalls. "I said, 'What money are you talking about?' and she said, 'Your SSI check.' And I said, 'What is SSI?"
Now 22, Thorpe says those monthly payments from the Supplemental Security Income program could have made a big difference in her life. For example, she was eligible for SSI because she had learning disabilities. Maybe she could have had tutors.
"I missed one semester in the 12th grade," Thorpe says. "I could have went to school and paid for my books and whatever I had to pay for to finish that one semester."
But now, Thorpe says she can't afford to take the GED, or get her cosmetology and driver's licenses. She's also struggling to pay rent. And though she's been labeled "mentally challenged," Thorpe says she should have had some say in how her SSI payments were spent. She's suing the state to get that money back.
"I been trying to fight for two years to be my own payee and they keep saying, you cannot be your own payee," Thorpe says. "If I was so mentally challenged, I wouldn't be able to do the things I do."
Like testifying at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Thorpe recently got to tell her story to Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA). He was introducing legislation that would prevent states from claiming the Social Security benefits of eligible kids in foster care.
State officials say the SSI money is a vital part of how they care for foster children, especially those with special needs. In 2001, the Supreme Court agreed. The ruling stemmed from a case in Washington state. The Court found states weren't violating any Social Security Act rules, and that the practice wasn't harming the best interests of foster children.
Steve Williams directs communications for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. He says the SSI benefit money helped foster kids with serious disabilities get things such as wheelchairs, therapy and special education.
"And the rest of it was applied to basic life stuff like food, shelter and clothing," Williams says. "But again, for that child… for that child only."
The practice saved Washington State taxpayers $7 million in 2001, the last year for which figures are available. Williams says that if there's any money left after basic needs are covered, officials put it in a bank account for the foster child.
But child advocates say other states don't. They say some foster-care agencies even hire private companies to help track kids who get SSI and survivor's benefits.
Rep. Stark says that might not be so bad if the money was used exclusively for child welfare. But too often, he says, it winds up in a state's "general fund," where it could be used for roads, landfills or prisons, where Stark says those foster kids might end up.
His legislation would require child welfare agencies to appoint an independent manager for each foster child's benefits. Child welfare officials say they already have way too much to handle. But Stark doesn't see it that way.
"It's a pretty simple thing to take the check and put it into the bank each month into the child's savings account," Stark says. "I don't know that it takes a whole staff of lawyers to do that."
Most states won't end the practice without a fight. But child advocates say that unless eligible foster children actually get the SSI payments they're entitled to, they could wind up like so many other youth who age out of the system: homeless and broke.