“I was astounded that the state confiscates the benefit payments that come in for kids in the foster care system,” said State Sen. Jamie Raskin, who introduced the legislation, Senate Bill 914.
Raskin, who has vowed to re-introduce his bill next year, attributed its demise to concerns by Maryland’s Senate leadership of the fiscal impact the law would have on the Department of Human Resources’ budget.
“It never occurred to me that if a kid gets SSI survivor benefits or Veterans Administration benefits because a father just died in Afghanistan, that the money would just be thrown into the general budget of the DHR
He also disputed the assertion that Maryland cannot find the revenue to replace the federal benefit funds being absorbed by DHR.
“We always have enough money for things we don’t need, but never enough money to do the right thing. The idea that we’re going to balance the budget on the backs of some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in the state is depressing.”
DHR manages about 5,800 foster care children and young adults who are orphaned, abused or neglected. A subset of those, about 100 individuals, receive benefits from different federal revenue streams, such as Social Security Survivor benefits, Social Security Disability benefits, or Veteran Administration survivor benefits.
Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services reviewed SB 914 and its companion bill in the House to determine its potential impact on DHS’s budget. It concluded the agency would have to secure an estimated $516,000 annually to replace the lost revenue from those federal benefits should the proposed legislation be implemented. That estimate included costs associated with reviewing the case files of foster care youth. However, according to Melissa Rock, Child Welfare Director, Advocates for Children and Youth, the DLS calculations were based on servicing three times the number of children currently receiving benefits.
Of her testimony before the committee, Rock said she would have challenged other specifics of the DLS estimate had more time been available. She noted that even if the numbers were accurate, the sum of the federal benefits Maryland would have to replace constitute “just one percent of DHR’s annual budget and only one-tenth of one percent of Maryland’s entire budget.”
Rock said her organization supports Raskin’s bill not only on the principle of foster care youth’s right to their federal benefits, but also because the legislation would establish an account into which those funds would be deposited. To be made available when they age-out of foster care at 21 years-old, the money would be there for the “difficult transition from being in the state’s custody to being on their own.”
Amy Harfeld, National Policy Director, Children’s Advocacy Institute, said approximately seven states have sought to improve the management of federal benefits for foster children, but that the Maryland “would have been the first state to actually preserve some of this money for the child for later in life.”
Raskin became aware of Maryland’s diversion of funds after reviewing correspondence last fall from Dan Hatcher, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Hatcher, who also testified, explained that the current law allows the state to not only take Veteran Survivors benefits, for example, but also to take all of a foster child’s resources, including “trust accounts, property – even a child’s income” to cover DHR expenditures.
Yet the testimony that riveted attendees at the committee hearing came from former foster youth and current State Rep. Del. C.T. Wilson, who also testified in support of the corresponding bill in his chamber.
“Nationwide, we’re called the two percenters because less than two percent of foster kids ever graduate college, but we go to jail.” He noted that only 45 percent of Maryland’s foster care youth graduate high school, “if we’re lucky,” and that 60 percent [of foster care’s young women] get pregnant by age 20.
Wilson also cited results from a survey group that found 50 percent of foster youth reported being homeless more than once, in part due to a near equal unemployment rate.
The advantages of establishing an account to assist youth upon leaving foster care was a key reason Wilson supported Raskin’s legislation. “This how we change that mindset,” he argued.
Raskin ceded that “it may take some time to build the momentum we need” to pressure the legislature to enact his law. Ultimately, he said the problem lies not with DHR’s fiscal policies.
“The question is for us, representatives of the people of Maryland.” The immorality is clear, Raskin stated emphatically: “We believe in private property for everyone except those in foster care. This cannot stand.”