Children’s Services spends millions intended for foster children whose parents died

NASHVILLE — When a parent dies, their children are sometimes eligible to receive survivor benefits from Social Security.

But in Tennessee, the children of deceased parents, who end up in state custody, never see a dime. That’s because the state of Tennessee, acting as a child’s legal guardian, considers these Social Security survivor benefits as “income” for the Department of Children’s Services.

Page 399 of the Tennessee Budget

The millions of dollars intended for foster children are used by the department to offset operations and services while the qualifying child is in state custody. However, federal law requires the state to provide foster care services to eligible children whether there are survivor benefits available or not.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis

“I was appalled to find out the state was forcing some foster children to pay for their own care,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis who filed Senate Bill 2496 to ban the practice of confiscating benefits intended for hundreds of foster children each year.

“I want the state of Tennessee to stop balancing this department’s budget on the backs of kids whose parents died,” she said.

A fiscal analysis of the bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, estimates that the Department of Children’s Services collects $7.4 million from Social Security survivor and disability payments each year.

Under Sen. Akbari’s bill, the state of Tennessee would instead hold the funds in a trust for the intended recipient until the child ages out of foster care.

“Many of the children who age out of foster care have nothing to their name and little or no family to fall back on,” said Sen. Akbari. “When a child’s parents die and they are owed these funds, we should make sure they receive every penny.”

The Marshall Project produced an extensive report about this practice last year.

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 49 states* and Washington, D.C., 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.

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