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Bill seeks to let foster children keep survivor, disability payments

After Ryan Weinberger's parents died while he was in foster care, Maryland collected his Social Security survivor's benefits of more than $30,000 to help cover his state-funded living expenses.

Now Weinberger, 21, wants to persuade the General Assembly to pass legislation to stop the Department of Human Resources from confiscating benefits available to hundreds of foster children each year.

"It's not right what they're doing — it's not their money," said Weinberger, who lives in Abingdon.

Some child welfare advocates are hoping Maryland will become one of the first states to block a practice that state agencies across the country quietly adopted decades ago. They want the money — projected to total $15 million in Maryland over the next five years — to be set aside for the foster children. The money could provide additional services for a child or a nest egg when he or she leaves foster care, as Weinberger did recently.

But opponents — including Human Resources Secretary Ted Dallas — say the state is using the money exactly as a parent would, to pay for the needs of the 5,800 children in the foster care system.

"Every single dime goes to care for the kids," Dallas said.

What's more, Dallas said, the money the state collects from Social Security for one child — an average of $735 a month — typically doesn't cover the cost of the care. Each month, the state pays $835 for standard placements, $6,000 per child in a group home and upward of $10,000 for children with severe medical needs, he said.

Passing legislation would result in cuts to services for all children, Dallas said, because of the loss of revenue. And setting up trust funds for foster care children would be costly, he said. The state would have to contract with outside experts to develop bank accounts for the children, which would be outside the expertise of social workers.

Children get Social Security benefits either because they are disabled or a parent has died. The state says it collected an average of $2.5 million in survivor or disability benefits on behalf of about 300 children in each of the last three years.

That figure could grow if the state decides to be more aggressive in looking for and collecting such benefits from the Social Security Administration. Dallas said the agency is considering whether to hire a private contractor to routinely screen foster children for benefits and apply to get them — which would increase the money the state collects each year.

A report prepared by Reston, Va.-based Maximus in September shows the state could expect to collect Social Security disability benefits on behalf of approximately a quarter of its foster care children, based on national norms. That would generate as much as $6.9 million to $9.2 million each year.

Besides Social Security benefits, state regulations say the human resources agency can seize a foster child's assets, such as life insurance benefits or a property willed to him, though Dallas said that's not the agency's practice. It's rare that children in Maryland's foster care system have access to property or financial assets apart from Social Security, he said.

The foster care system is designed to provide a temporary home for children whose families have abused or neglected them or otherwise cannot care for them. Despite policies that strive to return children to their families, they sometimes grow up in foster care.

State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, sponsored the legislation that would prohibit the state from keeping a child's benefits and instead require that they be spent on services for that child or held in a trust fund. He said the state should consider whether the money and assets belong to the system as a whole or to the individual children.

"It's a very important moral and policy question," Raskin said. "It is not one that we have tackled before, so I think it's going to be an education for everyone to see how this system works for the most vulnerable Marylanders we have."

Raskin said he doesn't blame the Human Resources Department for collecting the money, but wants lawmakers to carefully consider the practice.

"The states have built this money into their budgets as a kind of found treasure, and with budgets as tight as they are, we can understand why they have come to depend on this money," Raskin said. "The issue is shockingly new to most people, including me, and there is a lot of information to wrap our minds around."

The Senate bill has 16 co-sponsors, including four Republicans. A companion bill in the House has 26 Democratic co-sponsors and six from the GOP. A Senate committee is expected to vote on the measure next week.

Daniel L. Hatcher, a University of Baltimore law professor and proponent of the legislation, said the benefits money is many times the last connection between abused, neglected and orphaned children and their parents.

"It's really a disturbing practice," Hatcher said. He contends that taking the foster children's benefits and assets is a strategy intended to create savings for the state's general fund.

Both Maryland's high court and the U.S. Supreme Court have upheld the practice of states collecting the benefits. But child welfare advocates have seen partial success from their legal challenges.

Hatcher said the Maryland Court of Appeals found in September that the state was violating the rights of foster children by not notifying them or their lawyers when the Human Resources Department applied to collect their Social Security benefits or detailing how the agency spent the money. He served as co-counsel for several advocacy groups that submitted arguments in the case.

With notice, he said, the children could protest the state action and find another person or group — such as nonprofit or a family member — to set up a fund in which the benefits could be deposited.

The court indicated that the state should send notice, but the pending legislation would formally direct the agency to provide the notice.

"Not only is it the right thing morally to not take resources from abused and neglected children," Hatcher said, but helping foster children establish themselves as young adults with savings accounts or specialized care plans makes them less likely to rely on public assistance as adults.

"We shouldn't force foster kids to pay for their own care," Hatcher told a Senate hearing Thursday.

Maryland offers some advantages to foster children that other states don't. Youths can stay in foster care until they turn 21, rather than 18, and those who attend college can receive tuition breaks.

The state also has the Ready by 21 program, which works to help foster children find stable housing, reach educational milestones — such as a high school diploma — and establish financial stability with employment and credit.

Dallas said if the state wants to spend more money on foster children, lawmakers should invest in the Ready by 21 program, which would benefit all the children, not just a portion who qualify for outside benefits.

Weinberger, who entered foster care when he was about 9, said he plans to continue a legal fight to keep the Social Security benefits for which he was eligible based on his deceased parents' work history. His mother died when he was 13, his father when he was 15.

Weinberger, who plans to join the state's Conservation Corps this fall, will receive some money. His state-appointed lawyer from the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau successfully recouped about a third of the benefits the state collected on his behalf.

He hopes that by sharing his story, lawmakers will carefully consider what life is like for him and other foster kids.

"If I could help kids who in the future are aging out, I would like to do that," he said. "I would like someone to have done that for me."

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