Senator Jon Ossoff (D., Ga.) and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), the chair and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, launched an investigation of Georgia’s child welfare system following reports of a widespread breakdown. A state investigation reportedly found that child welfare caseworkers were not able to investigate all child abuse allegations and that human trafficking and abuse victims were not being provided adequate placements and protections.
The senators’ letter requested a copy of the state’s investigative report, information about the child welfare agencies’ procedures for handling cases, statistics on child abuse cases, and details about how the state was placing at-risk children in hotels or government offices.
“As leaders, we have no higher obligation than to protect those who cannot protect themselves — especially children at risk of abuse or neglect,” the senators wrote.
They’re right. It’s encouraging to see bipartisan interest in congressional oversight of child welfare agencies and the treatment of foster children. Let’s hope that other committees with jurisdiction over child welfare programs make oversight of the nation’s foster care system a priority in the 118th Congress.
One issue ripe for oversight is state child welfare agencies’ current practice of using foster children’s Social Security disability and survivor benefits, as well as veterans benefits, to pay for their care.
Last August, former foster youth Ian Marx described his experience of having the government take survivor and disability benefits owed to him to pay for his care after his mother was killed and his father was arrested for murder. Marx described his fears while entering foster care as an 11-year-old and grieving his parents. Marx wrote:
I had one reason to hold onto hope. My mom honorably served in the Navy at Guantanamo Bay, and because of her death, I became eligible for her Veterans Pension benefits. This money could have been the key to helping me pay for my bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, or for my law degree at Emory University, where I am entering my second year. It could have helped me secure safe housing, stable transportation and do normal things like go on debate trips and participate in extracurricular sports.
But I never saw a red cent of my mother’s survivor benefits, or the Supplemental Security Income benefits I became eligible for after coming into care. These benefits, which my social worker bluntly told me I shouldn’t bother to pursue, would have totaled over $1,000 a month.
This practice is common across the country. A 2021 investigation by the Marshall Project and NPR found that:
“[I]n at least 36 states and Washington, D.C., state foster care agencies comb through their case files to find kids entitled to these benefits, then apply to Social Security to become each child's financial representative, a process permitted by federal regulations. Once approved, the agencies take the money, almost always without notifying the children, their loved ones or lawyers.”
A subsequent Government Accountability Office review corroborated these findings.
The Congressional Research Service found that, in 2018, child welfare agencies collected about $179 million in Social Security disability and survivor benefits owed to foster children to pay for their care.
Let that sink in. Government agencies took $179 million dollars owed to the most at-risk children in society to offset government expenses.
Statistics show that former foster youth often succumb to poor life outcomes. They’re more likely to become homeless, unemployed, or incarcerated than their peers. They’re also more likely to become victims of human trafficking.
Giving foster children their owed disability and survivor benefits could help them avoid these outcomes when they transition to adulthood after leaving state care.
Members of Congress have already raised bipartisan concerns about states’ taking foster children’s benefits. And some states are reforming state laws to curb this practice. But as Tim Keller and I wrote in The Hill last year, Congress should step in to protect foster children’s benefits.
Senators Ossoff and Blackburn are right to conduct needed oversight of child welfare agencies to protect foster children. But the Human Rights Subcommittee should also investigate government agencies taking money from at-risk youth. A hearing and fact-finding to expose this practice and how it harms the most disadvantaged children in society should spur Congress to protect foster children’s benefits once and for all.