Many young adults share a common plight. They are among hundreds of former foster youths across Minnesota who are struggling to make ends meet because county agencies took their federal benefits without telling them.
Under a longstanding practice, Minnesota counties are withholding monthly Social Security payments from foster children whose parents have died or have become disabled, and instead are using the money to offset the cost of county foster care. Based on new data, child advocacy groups estimate that each year between $6 million to $10 million in federal payments are being taken from some 1,400 foster youths statewide.
From Mankato to Duluth, former foster youth said they feel betrayed and abandoned by the county welfare agencies charged with protecting them. Most said they were never told of the benefits and learned about them only by chance years after their parents died. The money, which averages about $700 a month, could have been a crucial lifeline — helping them pay for rent, tuition, transportation, therapy and other expenses as they transition to adulthood.
An emerging coalition of foster youth, child welfare advocates and civil rights attorneys is pushing to end the practice — saying it’s tantamount to theft and exacerbates the economic hardships that many foster youths face. A bill to be introduced at the capitol would preserve these funds for youths by placing them in individual trust accounts, which foster children could access when they turn 18. The legislation is modeled after similar laws in Connecticut, Hawaii, Nebraska and Texas, as well as Philadelphia and the District of Columbia.
“It’s theft, plain and simple,” said Hoang Murphy, executive director of Foster Advocates, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that has been lobbying to end the practice. “How can these agencies say they are serving children while they are taking the very money that would help them make a start in life?”
In Minnesota, as in most states, local agencies routinely gain control over a child’s Social Security survivor and disability benefits by applying to be their financial representatives (known as “representative payees”) with the federal Social Security Administration. Federal law requires these financial representatives to act in the best interests of the foster children, yet the money is frequently taken without foster youths ever knowing it. In 2018 alone, local child welfare agencies took more than $165 million in Social Security benefits owed to foster youth, according to a national survey by Child Trends, a Washington, D.C., research group.
In Hennepin County, home to the state’s largest population of foster children, the revenue from the benefits is significant. From 2019 to 2021, Hennepin collected nearly $1.5 million in survivor and disability benefits from foster children, which is used to offset the cost of their care. Each year, 100 to 150 foster youth in Hennepin are eligible for benefits, which represents less than 12 percent of the county’s population of youths in out-of-home care, according to county data.
(Source: Star Tribune)