It’s been almost 45 years since Kathy Stolz-Silvis was in foster care in Pennsylvania. Stolz-Silvis was nine when her father died, making her and her siblings eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. But she didn’t become aware of those benefits until decades later — after reading an investigation published by The Marshall Project and NPR.
The report, published last year, found that foster care agencies in at least 49 states and Washington, D.C., have been applying for Social Security on behalf of foster youth in their care who are eligible for death, disability or veterans’ benefits. The agencies often keep the money, often without notifying the children, their family members or lawyers.
Stolz-Silvis followed a step-by-step guide to contacting the Social Security Administration included with the investigation, which was developed with information provided by the agency. This is where she hit a roadblock.
“Out of curiosity, I called them to find out what happened to my benefits when I was in foster care,” Stolz-Silvis said. “The person on the other end of the line told me they were not allowed to give me that information.”
In recent months, The Marshall Project and NPR have heard from dozens of former foster youth who described similar failed efforts to learn whether a state or local agency had applied to become their “representative payee,” allowing the agency to receive their federal benefits, a process permitted by federal regulations.
Many said they tried to contact Social Security but have not been given answers. And those who learned that their benefits were taken said there seemed no clear course for getting that money back.
In an email, Darren Lutz, a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration, said that for those inquiring about past benefits: “We maintain records on the benefits we have paid and can answer their questions.” The agency has “provided guidance and training to our employees on our rules and requirements for selecting representative payees, notifying the proper parties, and monitoring the performance of foster care agencies that serve as the representative payee for a child in foster care.”
For current foster youth, Administration for Children and Families spokesperson Pat Fisher confirmed that both the agency and the Social Security Administration are developing joint guidance to state agencies about how to handle these cases, though there is no timeline for releasing it.
Jermaine Wilson, who was in foster care in Washington State, said he was supposed to receive disability benefits after he was hit by a car at age 15. He said he has attempted at least 10 times to get information about those benefits, but keeps getting “a big runaround” from Social Security.
Melody Masi said she was meant to receive Social Security benefits and Veterans Affairs death benefits after her father died while she was in foster care in Virginia. When she called Social Security, she said she was told by a representative that “she hears this stuff a lot” but that “unfortunately, there’s nothing they can do about it.”
Jayden Kiley was 17 and in foster care when her mother died, and she became eligible for death benefits from Social Security. But for eight months, between October 2019 and July 2020, she said, nobody told her about the benefits — or that her mother had even died. She found that out from a sibling.
“I didn’t know any of this,” Kiley said.
For two years, Kiley tried to get information from Social Security about her benefits, but she said that a representative told her that every time she called she was put at the bottom of a waitlist, so she stopped calling for a while. Eventually she found out the amount due to her is about $8,500, but said she hasn’t received any of it.
Advocates could only point to isolated cases in the past where judges have restored a particular youth’s benefits.
Amy Harfeld, national policy director for Children’s Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of foster youth, expressed frustration with the agencies’ failure to take action. “It is unacceptable to ignore the youth who have been at the forefront of the requests,” she said.
In the original Marshall Project/NPR report, most child services agencies pointed out that it is legal for them to apply to Social Security to become the financial representative for foster children’s benefits — though federal regulations state that a parent, foster parent, relative or family friend is preferred. Almost all agencies said they take kids’ money as reimbursement for the cost of foster care.
In a landmark class action lawsuit in Alaska, a district court ruled that the state should notify foster youth before applying to receive their federal benefits. Appeals in the case are ongoing.
Meanwhile, lawmakers on the local, state and federal level have begun tackling the issue.
Last year, federal legislation that would prohibit state agencies from using foster youths’ Social Security benefits in their budgets failed to advance in Congress. As the bill’s lead sponsor, Democratic Rep. Danny K. Davis of Illinois, put it: “Yes indeed, we are still here after a year.”
This summer, Davis said he plans to reintroduce the legislation that would make sure benefits go to youth while also maintaining federal support for child welfare systems. The bill would require agencies to interview foster children to identify any relatives who could be appointed as representative payees and who could set aside the money for the children once they are old enough to leave foster care.
“Aging out is a difficult period for many young people, it is most desirable that as much of the resources get into the hands of the foster children,” Davis said.
Several states have taken action on this issue since the investigation was published, including Nebraska, Illinois, Connecticut, California and Minnesota. There are also plans for a bill next year in Hawaii.
On the local level, city leaders have passed or introduced legislation addressing the issue in New York City, Los Angeles County, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
But these state and local measures only apply to youth currently in the foster system. Kiley and Wilson and other former foster youth who have continuously called their Social Security offices about their benefits must wait for future guidance from federal agencies. Many others still may not even know their benefits were taken.
“The very nature of this practice and the reason it has been allowed to persist for so long, is that it all happens behind the backs of foster youth and their attorneys,” Harfeld said. “It’s very rare to find young people who know this happened to them.”