Legislation needed to protect foster kids' personal funds

Maryland needs legislation to stop its foster care agencies from taking child resources.

Our state foster care agencies are apparently so underfunded that they are taking resources from abused and neglected children. The agencies are taking control over foster children's Social Security benefits (when the children are disabled or have deceased parents) and using the children's funds to repay foster care costs. In other words, Maryland is requiring the children to pay for their own care.

Maryland will even take Veteran's Assistance benefits from children with a parent who died in the military. And a state regulation was written to take "all of the child's resources" to repay foster care costs, including "the child's own benefits, insurance, cash assets, trust accounts" and even the child's own earnings — everything. This even though Maryland is rightly already legally obligated under state and federal law to provide and pay for foster care services.

It's almost out of a Charles Dickens novel — forcing orphaned and disabled foster children to pay for their own care. Other states have engaged in this practice regarding Social Security benefits, but the fact that other states may be engaged in bad policies does not make it OK for Maryland.

There's more: Maryland hired a private company last year — Maximus, Inc. — to provide an assessment for how the state can obtain more resources from foster children and, according to Maximus' report, "maximize revenue gain"; the report describes foster children as a "revenue generating mechanism." The Maryland Department of Human Resources contracted with Maximums despite litigation regarding the practice and a finding by the Maryland Court of Appeals that the agency violated foster children's due process rights by providing no notice to the children or their lawyers. Maryland foster care agencies are significantly underfunded. But taking resources from the very children the agencies exist to serve is not the answer.

Luckily for our state's foster children, Sen. Jamie Raskin and Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith sponsored legislation this year that takes an important step toward improving protection of foster children's own resources. Senate Bill 524 and companion House Bill 575 mandate that:

•The foster care agency serve in a fiduciary capacity for children in its care, only serving their best interests;

•In addition to deciding how to best use the children's resources for current unmet needs, the foster care agency begin conserving at least a percentage of the funds to help those children who will soon be aging out of care;

•The foster care agency help children begin to understand finances and start planning for their futures.

SB 524 and HB 575 help ensure that foster children's own resources are used to truly help the children, including aiding the children's struggle for future self sufficiency. Using the children's resources, a planning process is encouraged to promote saving for the children's future educational and employment goals, including already available specialized savings accounts — such as the Program for Achieving Self Support (PASS) and individual development accounts.

This legislation will help our must vulnerable children to help themselves by using their available resources in ways that serve their current unmet specialized needs and assist in their difficult future struggle for independence as they leave foster care. The Senate bill, with amendments, received a unanimous favorable vote from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. A hearing will soon be held before the House Judiciary Committee. Members of that committee should follow the lead of their counterparts in the Senate.

Daniel L. Hatcher is a professor of law in the University of Baltimore; his email is dhatcher@ubalt.edu.

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