Penny-pinching

October 02, 2006

Maryland's child welfare agency, like others around the country facing rising costs, collects Social Security and other federal benefits received by children in foster care to help defray the state's cost of caring for them.

Some children's advocates have rightly questioned this practice of converting the benefits of needy children into a source of state funding, rather than using it to subsidize much-needed additional foster care services. We believe the money collected - about $100 million annually nationwide - should be used for more supportive services and increased payments to woefully underpaid foster parents. These steps could persuade more people to become foster parents, helping to ensure that abused and neglected children, many suffering from emotional problems, get more specialized services and individualized parenting and spend less time in crowded group homes.

The federal government provides Social Security benefits to children with disabilities, or with a disabled or dead parent, regardless of whether a child lives with a parent or legal guardian or is a ward of the state. As a result, Baltimore's Department of Social Services turned over to the state last year $1.2 million collected in benefits as reimbursement for foster care. Using these funds toward targeted care would be a wise move.

States' ability to also tap the savings accounts, trust funds, life insurance payments and other assets of foster children, including even property left to them by dead parents, is troubling, however. These assets are very often the only remaining links the children have to deceased parents and can also greatly ease the transition from foster care to independent living once the children reach adulthood. These resources may also help them stay off public assistance; about 40 percent of former foster children end up on welfare as adults.

Maryland even includes the earnings of older foster children with jobs when calculating the reimbursement costs. This seems particularly counterproductive, given these young adults' need for money when they leave the system.

Children in foster care should be allowed to keep assets not provided them by the federal government for later use when they are on their own. The money could come in handy for college, or to buy a car to get to and from work, to study a trade or start a business, or to pursue other dreams that might otherwise be out of their reach.

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