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If a child goes into foster care, that means their family is most likely in crisis. Maybe the child's been neglected or even abused. These are some of the most vulnerable of children. So imagine if the state then gave that child a bill, told them to pay for their own foster care. An NPR investigation with the news organization The Marshall Project finds that states do just that. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Alex Carter had been in foster care since she was a child. Some years ago, she found out that Social Security was sending her a disability check - more than $700 a month. It's money for people with disabilities like her to pay for basic needs like food, clothing and shelter. But Carter didn't get the money. The state of Alaska took it as a payment for the foster care the state provided. Now, Alex Carter - she was just turning 20 when I met her. That seemed unfair.
ALEX CARTER: Go ahead and let me just pay for being taken away from my parents.
SHAPIRO: In effect, she, a child, was being charged for her own foster care, for something that states are required to pay for by federal and state law.
CARTER: How are you going to charge a 12-year-old child support, basically?
SHAPIRO: Which is kind of what they did.
CARTER: Yeah, and they did it for so many years without telling me.
SHAPIRO: NPR and The Marshall Project investigated a little-known practice of the child welfare system. States routinely claim the benefit checks that go to children and youth in foster care. Then when foster care ends, the youth is told to leave with little or no money. You might think of Social Security as something for retirees. It also sends checks to kids with significant disabilities, if their parents have disabilities or when a parent has died. We found documents that estimate around 10%, maybe even 20% of foster children are eligible for Social Security. Officials in Alaska and other states told us the benefit checks are used responsibly to cover daily living costs for the children. Lindsey Schilling runs child welfare programs in Wyoming.
LINDSEY SCHILLING: You know, the court puts us in a position to be the temporary parents or the temporary guardian. So we use that money in the same way that a biological parent or guardian would be using it.
SHAPIRO: Still, those children who get Social Security checks are the only ones told to, in effect, pay for their own foster care. Social Security doesn't report the numbers, but in most and maybe every state, child welfare agencies take those checks - at least $165 million in 2018. That's from unpublished data collected by the research group Child Trends, and that's just from what was reported by 36 states and the District of Columbia.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The state of Alaska is now in session, with the honorable Judge William Morse presiding.
WILLIAM MORSE: Be seated, please.
SHAPIRO: In Alaska, Alex Carter sued the state as part of a class of some 260 children in foster care.
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MORSE: Good morning. We're on the record.
SHAPIRO: In 2019, a state court ruled that Alaska violated Social Security's rules because it didn't notify Carter before taking her benefits. But just this January, the same court said Alaska doesn't have to pay back the money it took from Carter and the other foster youth. That's being appealed. The practice of taking Social Security checks isn't well-known, even among people working in the field.
JIM DAVIS: It was, if you can imagine, a hundred teenagers.
SHAPIRO: That's attorney Jim Davis talking about a meeting of foster youth from an advocacy group called Facing Foster Care in Alaska. At one point, the teens in the room were told, hey; there's a lawyer here. What do you want him to know?
DAVIS: And kids would just start hollering something. Where's my Social Security money? Where's my Social Security - you know, so it wasn't one kid. It was, like, a lot of kids all complaining about the same thing. This was, like, something that was on their mind. Most all the kids were pissed off about it because most all of them are poor, right? They don't have any money. And getting this Social Security money would be a huge game-changer for them.
SHAPIRO: Davis from the Northern Justice Project figured these kids had heard some rumor, that they got it wrong. The next day, back in his office, he did some research, and the foster youth were right. Davis brought that lawsuit against the state of Alaska.
DAVIS: Because if somebody takes your money without your permission without telling you, it's called stealing. It's stealing. That's what it's called. Now, if the government does it to you, it doesn't change because it's the government.
SHAPIRO: And that was your argument.
DAVIS: I think I toned it down in court, but that is, in fact, what's occurring.
SHAPIRO: To get a sense of how that money matters, I spent some time with the plaintiff in that case, Alex Carter.
SHAPIRO: I was with her before the pandemic as she was turning 20 and about to age out of foster care. As part of that change, she moved...
CARTER: This is my living room.
...Into her first apartment, a one-bedroom on the bottom floor across from the laundry room. The state gave her a rent voucher for youth leaving foster care.
Slowly furnishing it, I see.
CARTER: Yeah. I'm not sure if I'm going to do any more than this - probably a bigger TV for sure.
SHAPIRO: Sparsely furnished - a donated couch, a bed, that tiny television. At first, she says she didn't have enough money for food, so she'd drop by a former foster parent and eat there. Carter had been in foster care since she was about 9, taken, she says, from alcoholic and abusive parents who were often homeless. She tries to imagine what growing up is like for other kids.
CARTER: Like, with most families, they have a childhood house that they can always go back to and look at the fond memories. There's photo books and all of that, the consistency and traditions and being able to say, oh, I went to one school my entire school year and just simple things that teenagers do that I craved. But I got over the fact that I won't have it.
SHAPIRO: Carter, who is Alaska native, doesn't have photographs that document growing up. She moved 15 times in 10 years from one stranger's house to another. And for all that moving, she's never even owned a suitcase. Plastic trash bags had to do instead.
AMANDA METIVIER: You lock a child up. You rip them from their home. You move them five, 10 times. They're going to have some issues related to that.
SHAPIRO: That's Amanda Metivier. She'd come to see Alex's apartment. Metivier runs that advocacy group, Facing Foster Care in Alaska. She was once a foster youth herself. Now she's a foster parent.
METIVIER: Most children who have come into foster care are grieving the loss of their family. And grief looks a lot like depression, right? Or they have symptoms of trauma because whatever happened in their family home. So pretty early on, most children get a diagnosis of, like, PTSD or depression.
SHAPIRO: Depression and PTSD - those are diagnoses that Alex Carter says she got. That's where those Social Security checks come in. When the check is written for a minor, Social Security will send the money to what's called a representative payee. That's someone who can make decisions in the best interests of the child about how the money is used. Reporters for NPR and The Marshall Project interviewed former foster youth in five states. None knew the state was cashing their checks.
We looked for workers whose job it is to sign up kids for Social Security. One told us he never even met the children. He just went through their records to see who's likely to be eligible for those hundreds of dollars a month. He told us it's all about the numbers. Just bring in as much funding as possible. Alex Carter was upset that the state made itself the representative payee without telling her.
CARTER: I could have had my grandfather be my payee. I could have had foster parents. I could have managed my own money with lessons with foster parents.
SHAPIRO: She's right about Social Security's guidelines about who can be a payee. We checked the regulations. They rank seven possibilities. Family and friends come first, then people like foster parents. It's got to be someone who knows the child and wants to help them. A state agency, like a child welfare agency, comes last. Alaska in court argued it would have been too burdensome to notify foster youth or their family.
CARTER: I'm just a bit nervous, even though I had a day to prep.
SHAPIRO: On that trip to Alaska in 2019, I met up with Alex Carter and that group of foster youth at a government building in Anchorage...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You guys ready? Should we head up?
SHAPIRO: ...Headed to a conference room to meet Jerry Milner, an official who has come from Washington.
JERRY MILNER: What we want to do is understand from you how you think the system is working for you or not working for you.
SHAPIRO: At the time, Milner was running the Children's Bureau for the Trump administration. That's the federal agency in charge of all policy on child abuse, adoption and foster care.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Alex is, like, jumping.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So excited.
CARTER: Because I was up for adoption for a good six years, I know that our adoption workers are really overloaded. But I was on three different programs to be adopted. No one's contacted me, no nothing. And just to be told that no one's really wanting you and that I have to age out of custody...
SHAPIRO: I caught up with Jerry Milner recently, and he remembers that moment with Carter vividly.
MILNER: I, like, spoke about how difficult it was to hear her social worker say, I'm trying as best I can, but nobody wants you. No child, no person should ever hear those words.
SHAPIRO: To Milner, Carter's story represents how the child welfare system fails way too often. It fails to keep parents and children together. Then it fails to get a child connected and adopted.
MILNER: And then we say, guess what? You have to pay for this.
SHAPIRO: He's talking about Alex Carter and those foster children who get a Social Security check who then pay for that care.
MILNER: It's a tragedy, in my view, when a state takes those young people's income and reimburses itself for foster care.
SHAPIRO: The former top federal official says that money belongs to the foster youth, a child with a disability or whose parent died. He says states have other sources for funding. Foster youth need that money when they age out of foster care. Milner notes one more thing.
MILNER: You know, my father died when I was 7 or 8 years old, and those Social Security checks were absolutely essential.
SHAPIRO: Social Security sent him survivor's benefits. It helped him and his mother get by, helped his family stay together and for him later to go to college.
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SHAPIRO: I checked in with Alex Carter recently. It's been hard during the pandemic. She needs a job. She's had legal problems. She lost that apartment.
CARTER: I moved to my cousin's because I moved out of my apartment.
SHAPIRO: Those Social Security checks the state collected in her name stopped when she left foster care. So Carter applied to get the disability checks for herself, noting her history of depression and PTSD. She was denied.
CARTER: I didn't qualify because I was in a better mind - state of mind.
SHAPIRO: Alex Carter says she's OK with that. She is in a better state of mind. Even though having some of that Social Security money would have made things easier, she says she's ready to try to make it on her own.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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