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In New York City, child welfare officials are trying out a reform that could give youth in foster care a better chance of success later on. They've announced the city will no longer take money from those children to pay for their own care. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Melanie Perez was just 12 years old when she went into foster care. She left foster care once to try to make it on her own.
MELANIE PEREZ: Me, I don't have my parent. My mom deceased when I left here at 18. I didn't have a penny in my bag.
SHAPIRO: But New York City is expensive. And not having money, not having a penny in her bag, was one reason she returned to foster care when she was 19. Now she's 21, the mother of a 1-year-old daughter. Soon, she'll be too old to stay in foster care. A few years ago, she was told that because of her various disabilities, Social Security was sending her a monthly benefit check - several hundred dollars a month. But the city foster care agency was cashing it and reimbursing itself for the food, shelter and other things it provided to Melanie Perez.
PEREZ: So that's what I'm saying. It's like not OK for them to take something that is not theirs.
SHAPIRO: NPR and the Marshall Project last year reported on this. We found child welfare agencies in probably every state take benefit checks, usually without even telling the child in foster care. Some agencies, like in New York City, have staff or even hire private companies to figure out which kids to sign up for that revenue, even though no other children get a bill for their own foster care - just the ones who get Social Security benefits because they're disabled or because a parent has died. Now New York City is planning to set aside that money for the youth whose name is on the check.
JESS DANNHAUSER: We want to make sure the young people have the benefit of their benefits.
SHAPIRO: Jess Dannhauser is the Commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services, New York City's child protection agency. This summer, the agency will start putting those Social Security checks in the savings accounts. When youth leave foster care, they face big odds - elevated rates of unemployment, homelessness. Dannhauser says it matters to have money in a savings account.
DANNHAUSER: It can go to college. It can go to starting their own apartment. It can make sure that they can pursue a technical career. Those resources can mean the difference between a really rocky start to that transition, or one that they really have a foundation to launch from.
SHAPIRO: For a child who gets benefits because they've been orphaned, the money set aside will add up to several thousand dollars a year. For a child who's disabled or has a disabled parent, the plan is to put aside $2000, a limit set by the federal government. Advocates for youth say there are ways New York could set up special accounts and save more than just $2,000. Still, Amy Harfeld from the Children's Advocacy Institute says the city's move is groundbreaking.
AMY HARFELD: What New York City is doing is courageous because they've basically said, we have been doing this thing that's unethical and that doesn't serve the kids that we are the legal parents of. And so even though we've become accustomed to taking this money, it's not the right thing to do, and we're going to stop doing it.
SHAPIRO: For Melanie Perez, the young woman in foster care, getting that money could be a big help.
PEREZ: I want to use the money to take care of my child. So it will help me be independent. It will help me pay some of my college tuitions, hopefully.
SHAPIRO: Maryland is the one state that already puts aside some Social Security money. Now there's legislation in Nebraska, Texas, Minnesota and Illinois to stop taking Social Security benefits from children in foster care. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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