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Legislation aims to stop Missouri from seizing federal benefits owed to foster kids

Missouri Rep. Hannah Kelly, chair of the House Ethics Committee and R-Mountain Grove, speaks as the committee begins Friday work on an inquiry into personnel matters.
Rudi Keller
The Missouri Independent
Missouri Rep. Hannah Kelly, chair of the House Ethics Committee and R-Mountain Grove, speaks as the committee begins Friday work on an inquiry into personnel matters.

Missouri’s child welfare agency took at least $6.1 million in foster kids’ benefits last year to reimburse itself for the cost of providing care. It’s a longstanding practice that has come under increased scrutiny across the country.

Missouri’s practice of taking millions of dollars in Social Security benefits owed to foster kids to defray the cost of providing care could come to an end under legislation debated last week in a House committee.

The state took at least $6.1 million in foster kids’ benefits last year — generally Social Security benefits for those with disabilities or whose parents have died — to reimburse itself for agency costs.

It’s a decades-long practice that has come under increased scrutiny across the country over the last few years. Several states, including Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon, have stopped the practice.

The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Hannah Kelly of Mountain Grove, would prohibit the state from using those federal benefits to pay itself back for routine foster care expenses.

Instead the division could use the funds for the child’s “unmet needs” beyond what the division is obligated to pay, such as housing as the child prepares to age out of foster care. The state would also be required to ensure the account in which the child’s benefits are deposited is set up in a way that doesn’t interfere with federal asset limits.

“This money is important for their future,” Kelly, who has been a foster parent in the past, said at a House Children and Families committee hearing last week. “We have a responsibility to make sure that it is safeguarded for their future.”

The state withheld $8.1 million in foster kids’ benefits in 2018, $7.9 million in 2020 and $7.1 million in 2022, according to data shared at the House Children and Families committee.

State agencies are allowed to be designated as the payee for kids in their custody, though nationally it’s been documented that kids aren’t always informed the state is receiving their benefits.

The main federal benefits at issue are through Social Security: Supplemental Security Income for those with disabilities and survivor’s benefitsfor those who have a parent who has died.

Kelly’s bill also includes benefits issued by the Railroad Retirement Board and Veterans Administration.

Around 10% of foster kids are entitled to Social Security benefits for survivors or those with severe disabilities, nationalreports have estimated. That would mean somewhere around 1,200 kids are eligible yearly in Missouri.

The agency didn’t respond to a request for these figures.

The result of the practice is that kids who are orphaned or have disabilities are responsible for paying toward the cost of their care in state custody, while foster kids who are ineligible for those benefits pay nothing.

“No child really wants to be in foster care,” said Democratic state Rep. Raychel Proudie of St. Louis, “…to make them pay for it is just absolutely egregious.”

“We don’t usually make children pay for their care under any other circumstance,” Proudie added.

The state uses the money to pay for routine foster care costs, though agency staff did not provide details when asked by lawmakers about those specific expenditures. In other states, it’s used to help offset the money states pay foster parents and group homes, for instance, for costs like housing and food.

The bill would prohibit that practice, so the agency would only be able to use the money to pay for things outside the bounds of their obligations, such as tuition, transportation, technology or housing.

A foster father, Jason White, testified at the House hearing that his foster child, now 20, “has exactly zero dollars to his name,” which he said would not be true if the state had put his federal benefits money into an account.

The state is supposed to provide a quarterly accounting of how it is using a child’s money but White said in practice that hasn’t happened. He has no record of where his foster child’s benefits went.

Madison Eacret, lobbyist for the nonprofit social service organization FosterAdopt Connect, said the annual social security disability benefit per child is around $10,000: equivalent to “two years of books and supplies for college, 10 months of rent for a one bedroom, nine to 12 months of child care for a young child, or four years of SNAP benefits.”

“Currently the vast majority of foster youth beneficiaries including those in Missouri never see a dollar of this money, and they don’t even know that someone has applied for their benefits,” Eacret testified.

Mary Chant, CEO of Missouri Coalition for Children, said the money could help foster youth who age out of the system and can become homeless.

“This funding would make a considerable difference in helping youth better position themselves for independence,” Chant said. “This money belongs with the child.”

Fifteen states and cities have, according to NPR, “taken steps to preserve the money of foster youth.” Nationally, state leaders have raised concerns they wouldn’t be able to fill in the budget gap left by abolishing the practice. California’s governor last year vetoed a bill that would’ve halted the practice, saying it would have cost too much.

No one testified against the bill at last week’s Missouri House hearing.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent. She previously wrote for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and is a Report for America corps member.
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