Tristen Hunter was 16 and preparing to leave foster care in Juneau, Alaska, when a social worker mentioned that the state agency responsible for protecting him had been taking his money for years.
Hunter’s mother died when he was little, and his father later went to prison, court records show, leaving him in a foster home. In the years that followed, he was owed nearly $700 a month in federal survivor benefits, an amount based on Social Security contributions from his mother’s paychecks. He doesn’t remember Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services ever informing him that it was routing this money — his safety net — into state coffers.
“It’s really messed up to steal money from kids who grew up in foster care,” said Hunter, now 21, who says he is struggling to afford college, rent and car payments. “We get out and we don’t have anybody or anything. This is exactly what survivor benefits are for.”
Roughly 10% of foster youth in the U.S. are entitled to Social Security benefits, either because their parents have died or because they have a physical or mental disability that would leave them in poverty without financial help. This money — typically more than $700 per month, though survivor benefits vary — is considered their property under federal law.
The Marshall Project and NPR have found that in at least 36 states and Washington, D.C., state foster care agencies comb through their case files to find kids entitled to these benefits, then apply to Social Security to become each child’s financial representative, a process permitted by federal regulations. Once approved, the agencies take the money, almost always without notifying the children, their loved ones or lawyers.
At least 10 state foster care agencies hire for-profit companies to obtain millions of dollars in Social Security benefits intended for the most vulnerable children in state care each year, according to a review of hundreds of pages of contract documents. A private firm that Alaska used while Hunter was in state care referred to acquiring benefits from people with disabilities as “a major line of business” in company records.
Some states also take veterans’ benefits from children with a parent who died in the military, though this has become less common as casualties have declined since the Iraq War.
State foster care agencies collected more than $165 million from these children in 2018 alone, according to the most recent survey data from the research group Child Trends. And the number is likely much higher, according to Social Security Administration data for 10 states obtained by a member of Congress and shared with The Marshall Project and NPR. In New York, California and a handful of other states, foster care is run by counties, many of which also take this money, our reporting shows.
Nationwide, foster care agencies are funded through a complicated web of federal and state grants and subsidies, paid for by taxpayers. Children’s Social Security benefits were not intended to be one of those funding streams, according to federal law.
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