Maryland needs to stop forcing foster children to pay for their own care

Dickens comes to life. The Maryland Department of Human Resources (DHR) hired a private company to help search for poor foster children who are disabled or have dead parents ­-- in order to take their money for state revenue.

Under this “revenue maximization” strategy, DHR requires its foster care agencies to target children who might be determined disabled or whose parents have died, apply for Social Security disability and survivor benefits on their behalf, and then apply to gain control over the children’s money as representative payee. Then, although obligated to only use the benefits for the children’s best interests, the agencies ignore their fiduciary role and take every payment from the children. DHR will even take Veteran's Assistance benefits from foster children whose parents died in the military.

DHR hired a private contractor — MAXIMUS, Inc. — to help increase these efforts to seek resources from foster children. A 2013 assessment report that MAXIMUS prepared for DHR, obtained under the Maryland Public Information Act, describes foster children as a "revenue generating mechanism." Prior Republican and Democratic administrations carried out these practices, and the Hogan administration has expanded the efforts.

The foster care agencies do not even receive more funds through these practices. Rather, resources obtained from foster children are used to pay foster care costs that the state is legally obligated to pay – essentially routing the children’s funds to replenish state revenue. Foster children are being forced to pay for their own care.

Child welfare services can be costly. But taking resources from the very children the agencies exist to serve is not the answer – and causes further harm.

Consider the daunting statistics facing foster children across the country. According to past studies, twice as many foster children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as Iraq war veterans; over one-third of children aging out of foster care never graduate from high school; only 3 percent complete college; less than half find employment; 85 percent suffer from mental health issues; over one-third are homeless; and almost 75 percent of males become incarcerated by age 26.

And it’s important to remember that we are all interconnected. When a foster child is not able to successfully transition to independence – and becomes incarcerated, homeless, unemployed, or in need of further public assistance – we all pay the cost.

Rather than taking the children’s resources, child welfare agencies could help foster children use their own funds to help prepare for the difficult transition to independence: saving their funds for college costs or vocational training, to purchase specialized tools or equipment for work, to help pay future rent or to purchase a car — now virtually a necessity for independent living -- or conserving the funds for the countless other expenses the children will encounter.

Luckily for our state's foster children, Del. David Moon and Sen. Richard S. Madaleno sponsored legislation this year that takes an important step toward improving protection of foster children's resources. House Bill 524 and companion Senate Bill 291 mandate that:

• 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 to start planning for their futures.

HB 524 and SB 291 would help foster children to help themselves by using their own resources to assist in their difficult future struggles as they leave foster care. Using the children's funds, 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 new 529A “ABLE” accounts for conserving funds for disabled children and adults.

The House bill already received a favorable vote, but with amendment. The Senate bill, without amendment, received a unanimous favorable vote from the full Senate. A hearing will soon be held before the House Judiciary Committee to reconsider the Senate version. Members of that committee will hopefully again vote in favor of the bill. And Gov. Larry Hogan should sign this bill into law to curtail his administration’s current practices of taking resources from our most vulnerable children.

Daniel L. Hatcher is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and author of The Poverty Industry; his email is dhatcher@ubalt.edu.

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