Children are coached to get aid, Social Security admits

April 08, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration acknowledged for the first time yesterday that parental coaching of children to fake disabilities so they can get monthly checks is a problem in some parts of the country.

Saying the problem is not serious on a nationwide basis, Diane Garro, a senior agency official, told a commission looking into the disability program, "We think there are pockets of problems. . . . We're seeing a higher percentage of them [suspect cases] from specific states."

Ms. Garro's testimony lent credence to the claims of medical experts and educators in some states that children are being TC forced to misbehave and do poorly in school so the parents can collect monthly benefits from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for children. The payments average $420.

Enrollment in the program has tripled in the past five years, with ++ 900,000 children now collecting $4.5 billion annually.

Although Ms. Garro did not identify the problem states, the Social Security Administration said later that Louisiana had one-third of the 923 suspected coaching cases in the nine months ending March 5. Mississippi had 13 percent.

Only three other states were cited by the agency -- Illinois, Ohio and Florida. The five states, taken together, had two-thirds of the cases. Figures for Maryland were not available.

A month ago, two Louisiana school officials were greeted by skeptical questions and comments after they told the National Commission on Childhood Disability that coaching was a serious problem in their communities.

"They sat and looked at me as if I was the crazy one," Willie Lee Bell, an elementary school principal in Lake Providence, La., said after his testimony. "They really didn't believe we knew what we were talking about."

Mr. Bell had complained that children at his school deliberately performed poorly and behaved badly so they could qualify for disability checks, known in some communities as "crazy

checks."

Critics claim coaching in part accounts for the explosive growth in the SSI program, while defenders of the program say it is an insignificant or non-existent factor.

They attribute the growth to three factors:

* A 1990 Supreme Court decision, known as Zebley, that requires a subjective assessment of applicants who don't have an ailment on Social Security's list of qualifying conditions.

* A 1990 expansion of the list of conditions to include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as behavioral, anxiety and mood disorders.

* A congressionally mandated "outreach" program by Social Security to find potential applicants.

After a study last year, the Social Security Administration concluded that "there was no evidence of widespread coaching or malingering." Of the 617 cases studied, it said, there was evidence of coaching in 13, and benefits had been awarded only to three of those applicants.

Social Security then encouraged state workers to report

suspicious cases.

Ms. Garro said that 923 cases of suspected coaching -- out of 440,000 applications the agency handled -- had been reported by March 5, including 303 Louisiana cases and 123 from Mississippi.

Pressed on how widespread coaching is, she said it is probably only 1 percent or 2 percent of the 600,000 children's applications each year -- but emphasized that this was only a guess.

Of the 923 reported cases, she said only 65 had been awarded benefits, and those awards were being reviewed.

Some critics argue that the number of children who get benefits as the result of coaching is irrelevant, that the real problem is the adverse effect the practice has on the children.

"It's the incentives that we've built in that will ruin those children's lives," Rep. Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican, told the commission last month.

"I don't care if they get the money or not. They go to school, act stupid, act crazy, disrupt the class. They're put down by their peers. Their self-esteem is lower. They never ever have a chance again to excel, to even make average grades. They're marked for life because of the government."

Mr. McCrery is the chief author of sharp cuts in the SSI children's program that House Republicans included in the welfare bill that passed last month.

The bill would overturn the Zebley decision and kick off the rolls 225,000 children who won benefits through that case.

It also would end cash payments for most future enrollees -- except the most severely disabled -- and replace the money with goods and services aimed at coping with a child's disability. These would be supplied by the states, using federal funds.

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