Every year, roughly 20,000 American young people age out of foster care, too often facing uncertain futures and the risk of ending up on the streets. But many of these former foster youth have unknowingly had tens of thousands of dollars stolen from them by government agencies before they turned 18. 

As many as 80,000 foster children are owed Social Security benefits stemming  from a parent’s death or a disability. These funds, which can be worth $800 a month, can provide critical help while they are in state care, or be saved to create a nest egg when they age out of the system. 

But for years, child welfare agencies have been applying for and taking these funds. In 2018, 38 states and the District of Columbia took $179 million in Social Security disability or survivor benefits owed to foster children and used those funds to pay for their time in care. In other words, child welfare agencies have been taking money from the most vulnerable children in the country to boost their budgets. As a result, youth aging out of foster care often leave with few or no financial resources when they should have access to thousands of dollars of federal benefits to make ends meet when they become independent. 

A growing bipartisan movement of state and local lawmakers across the nation are ending the routine practice of child welfare agencies’ taking federal benefits from foster children who have been placed in state care. According to the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego, at least ten states,  the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, New York City, and the City of Los Angeles have taken action to stop child welfare agencies from taking these benefits, with another dozen states contemplating similar steps.

Missouri State Senator Holly Thompson Rehder has introduced a bill prohibiting the state from using children’s benefits to pay for foster care costs. "It's wrong for the government to take federal benefits owed to our vulnerable foster children. I am proud to sponsor legislation to protect foster children's benefits, and hope that Missouri continues the national trend of ending this indefensible practice." 

But it shouldn’t require every state to pass its own legislation to protect these benefits. These funds are effectively a rounding error for state agencies’ budgets, but can be life changing for each foster child. Elected leaders in Congress can end this practice once and for all. In September, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a guidance letter to state and local agencies to encourage them to protect federal benefits

As Amy C. Harfeld, national policy director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute, recently put it,  “Congress now has an opportunity to support states across the political spectrum, and to establish once and for all that the disability and survivor benefits of foster children are meant to benefit the children, not the agencies that exist to protect them.” 

Congress previously considered legislation to address this problem. In 2022, Rep. Danny Davis (D., Ill.) introduced a bill, the “Protecting Foster Youth Resources to Promote Self-Sufficiency Act,” which would have prohibited state or local government agencies from using Social Security survivor or disability benefits to reimburse the state for providing foster care. The legislation did not pass. In 2024, Congress should revisit legislation on a bipartisan basis and end this practice once and for all.