Philly still keeps the benefits of foster care youths despite a 2022 law

Steve Volk and Julie Christie, Resolve Philly
Vaughn Jackson, who adopted Zaveonte Winn, left, and his brother, Xavier, at their home in Philadelphia in 2021. Tyger Williams / File Photograph

Photo above shows Vaughn Jackson, who adopted Zaveonte Winn, left, and his brother, Xavier, at their home in Philadelphia in 2021.


Philly still keeps the benefits of foster care youths despite a 2022 law banning the practice

Despite the city's new law, DHS acknowledges it’s still keeping the money meant for foster kids — about $1.3 million in Social Security benefits for 380 children in a typical year.

A year ago, after a Resolve Philly/Inquirer investigation revealed that the city Department of Human Services routinely took millions of dollars belonging to youths in foster care, City Council passed a law banning the practice.

But despite the law, DHS acknowledges that it’s still keeping the money — about $1.3 million in Social Security benefits for 380 foster kids in a typical year, according to the investigation — and plowing it back into the city’s general fund.

“I am appalled that our young people in foster care continue to be robbed of benefits that belong to them even after City Council took action to ban this shameful practice,” city councilmember Jamie Gauthier said in an email.

The practice of taking money that legally belongs to a child in foster care and keeping it as repayment for services has long been decried by child advocates as “stealing money from foster kids” because children, by law, are not required to pay for their own foster care.

DHS has begun alerting youths when they are taking their Social Security payments, a requirement of the new law. However, child advocates say the city’s notification letter doesn’t meet legal standards for due process. The money isn’t much in the context of the city’s $6 billion budget. But the money could amount to $10,000 or more for someone aging out of foster care to stay fed and sheltered for a while.

Amy Harfeld, national policy director and senior attorney for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, said the nonprofit is “contemplating future litigation” against government agencies, including DHS, engaged in this practice.

Vaughn Jackson, a Philly boxing trainer, discovered that for months the city was still taking Social Security payments belonging to two brothers for whom he’d become legal guardian.

Jackson used Community Legal Services to get that money returned to the two. One of the brothers, now an adult, used some of that money to be trained as an HVAC technician, he said, and hopes to put that to use in the Army. The other has conserved it all so far for later use.

It’s money, he said, that he could not have provided to help them get their adult lives started.

“That money is important to these kids,” said Jackson, “because most of the kids coming out of foster care, it’s not like they have anything. … It’s just sad to me that they are still taking this money.”

Young people who have been in the foster care system face increased risks, including a lack of educational achievement, medical and mental health issues, and homelessness, which brings increased costs to society, studies show.

Anahi Figueroa-Martinez, 24, who spent time in foster care, said these small sums “would have meant greater stability to have something to use toward rent, food, basic essentials.”

“It feels selfish and unjust for the government to keep this money when it’s not theirs,” said Figueroa-Martinez, now a youth advocacy program fellow at Juvenile Law Center.

Children can be eligible for Social Security benefits in two ways: Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a public benefit for mental or physical disability and financial need; or if a parent or guardian has paid enough into the Social Security system before retiring, becoming disabled, or dying. This “survivor’s money,” as it’s usually called, is owed as an insurance payment to children and belongs to them.

In the case of those under 18 in foster care, government child welfare agencies can serve as money managers, bound by law to act in each child’s best interest.

City DHS officials said by email that the city was still taking survivor funds to pay for foster care, but provided shifting explanations as to why.

First, a city DHS spokesperson wrote that the department feared an obscure state law blocks them from honoring the ordinance. Then, when confronted with further reporting, which uncovered that the state had already given the city legal clearance in October 2022, the city offered a new statement:

“We are currently gathering the necessary guidance and advice to embark on the complicated legal and financial process of conserving the benefits for youth with financial support from the city.”

The state also informed the city that it would need to fill any budget gap created by the Council bill.

“I don’t care who picks up the bill, city or state. But they need to stop stealing money from foster kids,” said University of Baltimore law professor Dan Hatcher, comparing the two layers of government to people haggling over an exceedingly small dinner tab.

The city supplied no specific timeline, for this article, for when it might fully implement Council’s 15-month-old ordinance. This impasse could be resolved quickly by the incoming administration of Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker, who did not raise any objections in 2022 when the law was passed. Parker did not respond to requests to be interviewed.


This article was originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer on December 26, 2023.


Our Kids x Philadelphia Journalism Collaborative Logo