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Were You Ever in Foster Care? Here’s How to Find Out if the Government Took Your Money

State foster care agencies have been taking benefits that belong to some of the most vulnerable kids. Here’s what to ask to see if it’s happened to you — and how to ask for your money back.

These current and former foster youth in Alaska say the state took Social Security benefits that belonged to them.
These current and former foster youth in Alaska say the state took Social Security benefits that belonged to them.

An investigation by The Marshall Project and NPR found that many state agencies routinely take Social Security money that belongs to foster children, often without telling them or their parents or guardians.

If you’ve ever been in foster care, you may be wondering if this has happened to you.

Figuring this out can be complicated. You may not know whether you were owed Social Security in the first place, or how much. And there are many complex laws and procedures involved.

We’ve tried to simplify it for you.

We called the Social Security Administration ourselves and asked what steps someone in this situation should take. Based on that and our other reporting, we wrote this step-by-step guide to help current and former foster youth and their advocates figure out whether the government took your money — and if so, how you could ask to get it back.

1) Are you/were you ever in foster care? If your answer is yes, go to Question 2.

2) Did one or both of your parents die when you were a child? If so, you may have been owed survivor benefits. Move on to Question 3 to see if you may have been eligible for other benefits.

3.) Do you think it’s possible that as a child, you may have had a physical or psychological disability?

Having a disability can mean a lot of different things. You could have a physical disability, such as one that requires you to use a wheelchair. Or you could have a condition such as depression or anxiety, or learning problems at school.

Some young people with disabilities are eligible for federal Social Security benefits. Here is more information to help you figure out if you have ever been one of them.

If you answered yes to Questions 2 or 3 — or if you’re still not sure whether you may have ever qualified for disability benefits — read on.

4) The next step is for you or someone you trust to call the Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C.

Are you younger than 18? If so, you will need the assistance of an adult guardian or legal representative. If you’re 18 or over, you will need to follow these steps yourself, although you may enlist the help of a loved one, attorney or advocate.

Make sure you have your Social Security number handy, and be prepared to provide other personal details such as your birthdate or current or past addresses.

5) Now it’s time to call the Social Security Administration.

The toll-free number is 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). You can call between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.

A prerecorded voice may ask you to say what you’re calling about; you should say “my representative payee.” (That means the person or agency that was in control of your money, if you were eligible for benefits.)

Prepare to listen to a lot of options and messages about Social Security. It could take a while — stay on the line. Make sure to speak to an actual person, not a robot.

5) When you get a human on the line, you could say:

“My name is X, and I believe that someone may have been receiving Social Security in my name, without me knowing it. Could you tell me my benefits history — whether I’ve ever received survivor or disability benefits?”

The agent will ask you some follow-up questions to prove your identity, including your Social Security number.

If you’re calling on behalf of someone younger than 18, try this script:

“My name is X, and I represent Y, who is a minor. I believe that someone may have been receiving Social Security in Y’s name, without them knowing it. Could you tell me Y’s benefits history — whether they have ever received survivor or disability benefits?”

6) If the Social Security agent says that you or a child you represent were eligible for benefits in the past, you can ask them how much and for how long, and for the identity of your “representative payee.”

You can specifically ask: Was the “payee” the foster care agency responsible for your care?

Here are some other things you can ask for: a full history of the payments made in your or the child’s name, or all of the “representative payee reports” in your case.

7) Next, ask to set up a phone appointment with a Social Security field office.

The agent you’re speaking with should be able to provide you with a local contact for a Social Security office. You can also find contact information for Social Security field offices here — you’re looking for the one closest to where you or the child you’re representing were in foster care.

You can call that office and tell them you want to start an investigation into what happened to your money and that you want to pursue getting reimbursed. Note that an agent may tell you that getting your money back isn’t possible. If that happens, you may need to seek the assistance of a lawyer.

8) If you or someone you represent is under 18 and currently entitled to Social Security benefits that the state or someone else is taking, you can request a new “representative payee.”

If you have someone in mind to be your representative payee, you can suggest that person. This could be your biological or adoptive parent, foster parent, a relative or family friend, or someone who works with youth in your community. Pick someone you trust to act in your best interests.

Be patient. It may take several calls to change your representative payee.

If you’re older than 18 and no longer eligible for benefits, there is no need to change your representative payee.

9) Finally, if you discover that a foster care agency has been taking your Social Security benefits, or the benefits of a child you represent, you can report it to the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General, by filling out this form.

In the “summary” section, you can argue that the money was taken to pay for foster care, which foster youth are not supposed to have to pay for. (You can also argue that your state broke its “fiduciary duty” to you or the child you represent by spending the money in its best interests, not the child’s.)

You can also give specifics about who you would rather have had managing your money, and what you would have used the money for or saved it for.

10) If you’re interested in learning more about what exactly a representative payee is, read more here.

Did this happen to you?
Do you believe that a foster care agency may have taken Social Security or other benefits that were owed to you or to someone you know? Do you have information about your state’s foster care system that we should know about?

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Eli Hager is a staff writer covering juvenile justice, family court, indigent defense, fines and fees and other issues; he also works on the "Life Inside" series of essays by incarcerated writers. He was a Livingston Award finalist for his 2017 investigation of the for-profit prisoner transport industry and is a three-time finalist for the Education Writers Association awards.