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Some Children Placed in Foster Care in California Are Used for Financial Gain by the State

When Kristina Tanner was 15 years old and had been a ward of the court for the better part of her life, she found out that she was responsible for paying the costs associated with her stays in group homes and with foster families.

She had satisfied the requirements necessary to receive monthly survivor benefits checks from Social Security, which is a program for children whose parents have passed away.

According to her, the several hundreds of dollars that should have gone to her each month or toward savings were instead sent to Butte County to cover the checks that were written to her foster care providers.

Tanner, who attends Sacramento State University full-time while also working three part-time jobs, is perplexed as to why the government felt it necessary to take her money.

“You’re pretty much saying that I’m paying for my time in care, and there are other people who are getting their time in care for free,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.” It’s not like we can always rely on our parents as a safety net.

It is common practice for county child welfare agencies in California to reimburse themselves for the cost of caring for foster youth by applying for and collecting the children’s Social Security benefits.

However, advocates argue that this money should be given to the children rather than the agencies.

Some of the children who are placed in foster care suffer from disabilities and come from families with low incomes, which makes them eligible for a Social Security program known as Supplemental Security Income, or SSI.

Others, like Tanner, are in the same position as he is: they are qualified to receive survivor benefits because either one or both of their parents passed away.

These children, who make up a small portion of California’s 55,000 foster kids, are not included in the state’s efforts to keep tabs on the amount of money that is withheld from them.

The Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles County enjoys the benefits of having approximately 600 children in its custody on any given month.

Los Angeles County is responsible for the upbringing of approximately one-third of the foster children in the state.

According to DCFS, last year $5.4 million in SSI and survivor benefits received by children were used to help defray the costs of foster care.

They are so eager to reduce their own financial liability that they are cataloguing the child’s assets in the process of doing so.

Amy Harfield serves as the Children’s Advocacy Institute’s National Policy Director.

Advocates argue that taking the money will hurt young people who are most in need of financial support, even though it will only cover a drop in the bucket of California’s child welfare system, which consumes nearly $5 billion in annual funding from the federal government, the state of California, and local governments.

Officials from the state and counties in charge of child welfare say they are using the money as it was intended, which is to provide for foster children in the same manner as if they were the children’s biological parents.

The federal government will only pay for the foster care of certain children if their families meet stringent poverty criteria. The states and counties are responsible for paying the full cost of other children who are in their custody.

It is generally acknowledged that the benefits provided by Social Security if they are made available, serve as a reduction in those costs.

“It’s not debatable that the government is required to pay for the upkeep of a child; it’s a legal obligation the state takes on when they remove a child from their home,” said Amy Harfield, national policy director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, which is based in San Diego.

“It’s not debatable that the government is required to pay for the upkeep of a child,” she added. “In this particular case, they are so eager to minimize their own financial liability that they are identifying assets belonging to the child,” she said. “In other words, they are using the child as a scapegoat.”

But when they leave foster care at the age of 18, young adults are frequently at a greater risk of being poor and homeless.

One multi-year study conducted in the state of California found that in the year 2020, one-quarter of youth who had previously been in foster care reported sleeping in shelters or being temporarily unhoused after leaving the system.


Tanner stated that Butte County, in their role as her guardian, collected her survivor benefits, which amounted to approximately $1,200 per month, until she graduated from high school, at which point she was no longer qualified to receive them. During her time in the custody of the state, she was probably given tens of thousands of dollars in total.

She has left the extended foster care system of the state now that she is 21 years old.

“Those benefits… would have been a game changer,” she said. “I wish I had known.” “I would be able to support myself if I had those funds,” I said, “but I don’t.” It may be just been sitting in [an account] for you where it’s continuing to grow. You may be retiring.”

Less than $800 is what the typical California child who receives supplemental income from Social Security receives each month. Those who are eligible for survivor benefits receive a monthly payment of approximately $980.

A growing number of states are contemplating putting an end to the practice of accepting this money as reimbursements, which would be significant.

In 2018, Maryland passed a law that mandated the state to set aside a certain amount of foster youths’ Social Security checks for them to use in the future. The department of social services for children in New York City has stated that it will continue to do the same thing this year.

In addition to Philadelphia, similar legislation was proposed in the states of Nebraska, Minnesota, and Texas. According to a report by The Marshall Project and NPR, Alaska was the subject of a class action lawsuit over the issue in the previous year.

Despite the state’s recent emphasis on providing financial safety nets for youth in foster care, California has not proposed terminating the program.

The legislature did approve a tax credit of $1,000 for former foster youth last month, and the year before that, they initiated a $35 million program to fund direct cash payments to low-income residents, with a preference for assisting former foster youth.

The state has also taken other steps to prevent itself from intercepting payments intended for low-income families. Beginning in the year 2025, the state of California intends to finally put an end to the decades-long practice of “recouping” child support payments from families that also receive cash welfare.

However, state and county officials have stated that receiving Social Security benefits is entirely within the law.

According to Scott Murray, who is the department spokesman for California’s Department of Social Services, “neither federal nor state law prohibits the offsetting of foster care benefits for youth.” The funds could be used by the county to provide daily care and support for the young people.

Officials with the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services refused to answer any questions regarding Tanner’s case.

CalMatters reached out to several other counties in California that have high caseloads in the foster care system to inquire about the practice. In addition to Los Angeles, three other cities replied.

It was reported that Kern County reimbursed itself more than $313,000 with Social Security benefits from 56 youth in the previous year, and that amount was even higher in the years before that.

According to the county’s most recent report, during the most recent fiscal year, San Diego County was able to reimburse itself for approximately $137,000 worth of benefits provided to 13 foster youth.

Director of Policy and Impact Litigation at the Alliance for Children’s Rights Sabrina Forte hired a company to apply for benefits on behalf of foster youths on behalf of San Francisco’s Human Services Agency.

According to a memo from 2019 that asked for a contract extension, the organization was responsible for handling the benefits of 67 children and “applies the SSI to placement costs in the majority of situations or gives directly to the caregiver.”

If there is no other option available, the county is required by state law to accept the money on behalf of the child.

However, federal regulations establish a preference for a parent, relative, or close friend to receive the money and use it in the child’s best interest, if at all possible. This preference applies only if the money can be used.

Patricia Raymond, a spokesperson for Social Security, stated that the agency tracks and monitors how foster care agencies use the benefits.

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New mandates requiring counties to provide assistance to young adults ageing out of foster care in the process of applying for Social Security benefits were included in the state budget bill that Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a month ago.

In addition, the Board of Supervisors for the County of Los Angeles passed a resolution the year before to ensure that county welfare officials open bank accounts for foster youth so that they can continue to receive benefits after they turn 18 years old.

Several advocates for young people are pushing for counties to implement eligibility screenings for governmental benefits for children in foster care. They believe that eligible young people will be unable to obtain the funds when they reach adulthood if they do not receive assistance in navigating the challenging application process.

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