The tens of thousands of American teenagers who age out of foster care every year face challenges that few of us can imagine. Statistics show that former foster youth are much more likely to become victims of human trafficking, homeless or even incarcerated, compared to other young adults. But new reporting shows that many state governments are making these children’s lives even harder by taking Social Security benefits owed to them under federal law.

An April investigative report by National Public Radio and the Marshall Project found that 10 percent of foster children are eligible for Social Security benefits (including survivor benefits from deceased parents or due to the child’s disability). But state child welfare agencies are often taking the money:

In 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.

In 2018 alone, state child welfare agencies took $165 million from these children, according to the report.

But a new report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office shows that the problem could be even more widespread. GAO examined whether the Social Security Administration was complying with a 2018 law requiring SSA to establish information sharing agreements with state governments to track where Social Security payments owed to foster children were going. As of this spring, only “14 states were actively exchanging data with SSA,”  according to the Congressional watchdog.  But GAO found, among states that did report, the vast majority of the Social Security benefits were being collected by child welfare agencies:

National data from SSA show that child welfare agencies were the payees for about 81 percent of the more than 25,000 represented minor beneficiaries in foster care as of November 30, 2020; however, these data likely reflect an undercount. SSA staff stated the agency would not have complete information on these beneficiaries until all states were participating in the Section 103(a) data exchanges.

Given the serious challenges that foster children face in life, it is hard to fathom any justification for state child welfare agencies to take their Social Security benefits from them. States already receive billions in direct payments and reimbursements from the federal government for child welfare programs under the Social Securiy Act.

NPR described the story of Tristen Hunter, who learned that Alaska’s child welfare agency had been taking his money when he was about to leave foster care. He was owed $700 a month in Social Security survivor benefits from his mother who died when he was young and had been paying into the Social Security system for years.

"It's really messed up to steal money from kids who grew up in foster care," said Hunter, now 21, who says he is struggling to afford college, rent and car payments. "We get out and we don't have anybody or anything. This is exactly what survivor benefits are for."

Congress needs to stop this practice. Children in foster care who are eligible for Social Security survivor or disability benefits deserve to keep those funds.

In a new report, published by Gen Justice and FREOPP, Tim Keller and I propose providing youth aging out of foster care with cash accounts to pay for life expenses to help make the difficult transition to independence.

We included two recommendations for Congress:

To incentivize states to create Fostering Independence Accounts, Congress should expand the reimbursable uses of federal funds to allow states, territories, and tribal governments to pay for FIAs.
Congress should also revisit, revise, and reign in the all-too-common practice of state welfare agencies applying to the Social Security Administration to serve as the “representative payee” of youth in foster care and then using those youth’s Social Security benefits to reimburse the agency for the cost of foster care. One idea for reforming this practice would be to allow foster youth’s Social Security benefits to be deposited in a Fostering Independence Account to provide for the youth’s current and future needs.

For decades, national policymakers have passed bipartisan reforms intended to help at-risk teens aging out of foster care by providing various government benefits. These well-intended measures have made a positive difference for many former foster youth. But more must be done to ensure that orphaned teens don’t succumb to poor life outcomes. Protecting their Social Security benefits from state child welfare agencies should be next on the agenda.