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California Counties Siphon Social Security Benefits from Foster Kids


PUBLISHED JUL 24, 2022 12:00 A.M.
Kristina Tanner at the Sacramento State campus on June 29, 2022.

Kristina Tanner at the Sacramento State campus on June 29, 2022.

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

By JEANNE KUANG

When she was 15 and had been a ward of the courts for half her life, Kristina Tanner learned the cost of her stays in group homes and with foster families was coming out of her own pocket. 

She had qualified for monthly survivor benefits checks, a Social Security program for children whose parents had died.

Instead of the hundreds of dollars a month going to her or toward savings, it went to Butte County, she said, to cover checks issued to her foster care providers. 

Now Tanner, who works three part-time jobs while attending Sacramento State University, wonders why the government needed to take her money. 

“You’re pretty much saying I’m paying for my time in care, and there’s other people that are getting their time in care for free,” she said. “It’s not like we have our parents to fall back on.”

California county child welfare agencies regularly reimburse themselves for caring for foster youth by applying for and taking the children’s Social Security benefits — money that advocates say should instead be going to the children. 

Some children in foster care have disabilities and are from low-income families, qualifying them for a Social Security program called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Others are like Tanner, eligible for survivor benefits because one or both of their parents died. 

The state does not track how much money is withheld from these children, who make up a fraction of California’s 55,000 foster kids.

In Los Angeles County, which cares for about a third of the state’s foster children, the Department of Children and Family Services receives the benefits of about 600 children in its custody in any given month. Last year $5.4 million of children’s SSI and survivor benefits went toward defraying foster care costs, DCFS said.

Advocates say taking the money hurts young people who are most in need of financial support, while it covers only a drop in the bucket of California’s child welfare system, which consumes nearly $5 billion in federal, state and local funds a year.

Read “California counties siphon Social Security benefits from some foster kids” on CalMatters.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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