Philly took $5 million in foster children’s Social Security payments without telling them
Under this legal but controversial practice, DHS transferred the money into the city’s $5 billion general fund.
Vaughn Jackson wanted his new foster sons to feel welcome, so he marked their first weekend together by loading them into his car and driving them to a family party at his mother’s house.
“I always enjoyed kids,” he said of his decision to take the boys in, “and felt like I had something to give. So I became a foster parent.”
Jackson’s new charges, brothers Zaveonte and Xavier Winn, had by this time already experienced a life’s worth of upheaval: multiple caregivers and homes, an adoption that ended after their new mother’s death. Jackson, 52, a longtime area boxing trainer, set the kids up in front of a TV to watch the Eagles play and eat the food he himself had grown up on, a gesture that offered an immediate sense of normalcy.
Zaveonte recalls that first weekend, from more than five years ago, with an expression that conveys how meaningful it was for him to meet “the rest of the family.” By early 2020, the bond that the trio had formed seemed real enough that Jackson popped both boys the same question: How would you feel about making this more permanent?
They quickly said yes. And Jackson, who had raised five kids of his own, started the process of becoming their legal guardian. As a foster parent, he received a stipend of about $1,189 per month for each child, which made caring for them much easier. But he wished he could do more for them on a daily basis — bikes, books, phones, sneakers. Larger aspirations, like paying for college, seemed beyond him.
“It’s never easy,” he said. “You just do what you need to do.”
What he didn’t know, however, was that thousands of dollars were available, additional money that already belonged to the brothers: Social Security payments, stemming from the death of a woman who had adopted them more than a decade earlier.
That money, however, was being collected by Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services. They were not alone. The agency took in nearly $5 million in children’s Social Security benefits between fiscal years 2016 and 2020 that belonged to hundreds of youth in foster care, according to records obtained by Resolve Philly and The Inquirer through a Right to Know request. Then DHS swept the money into the city’s $5 billion general fund.
Around the country, the practice of DHS agencies taking Social Security benefits from kids to pay for their own foster care is under increasing scrutiny. In Maryland, a 2013 appeals court decision held that agencies violated foster children’s due-process rights when they took their benefits without informing them or their legal representatives. Maryland later enacted a law that mandates, among other things, that foster youth, or their lawyer, receive notice, allowing them an opportunity to claim the money. The law also calls for increasing amounts of their Social Security money to be set aside for them as they approach 18 years old.
According to city records and local child welfare professionals, Philadelphia’s DHS needs similar reform. Frank Cervone, executive director of Philadelphia’s Support Center for Child Advocates for nearly three decades, said he is unaware of his staff or volunteer lawyers ever being informed by DHS or anyone else that the city is collecting their clients’ Social Security benefits. The center trains volunteer attorneys to represent youth in court. “We’ve never been notified,” Cervone said. “Not to my knowledge. Never.”
Child welfare professionals, including social workers aiding youth in foster care at the Juvenile Law Center and C.B. Community Schools, also said they have never heard of clients receiving notification. As a result, hundreds of youth in Philadelphia are having their money taken by the city — and they never even know it. For Jackson and the Winns, the question was: Would they ever find out?
‘Taking from their future’
By July 2020, Jackson officially became the legal guardian of Zaveonte and Xavier Winn.
Their new legal status didn’t change much on the surface, Jackson said, but they did feel more settled as a family. This March, he filed to add the boys to his Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which he thought a mere formality. But a week or so later, he received a letter informing him that he couldn’t add the boys, and his own benefits were being terminated because the household’s income exceeded the program limit. A staffer explained why over the phone: The Social Security payments the boys were receiving had rendered the family ineligible.
Jackson spent much of his life in Southwest Philadelphia, training professional fighters, including Mike Jones, who made it to an International Boxing Federation world welterweight title fight. He said making a living out of a sport in which people get paid to be punched in the face helps him maintain a steady calm in most situations. “I was like, ‘Social Security benefits?’” he said, recalling the conversation with a bemused air. “I’m not receiving any Social Security benefits.”
After hanging up, he thought of a possible explanation: “I thought some relative was probably stealing the checks.”
What he didn’t know was that DHS was collecting the money.
Youth can be eligible for Social Security benefits for two reasons: through Supplemental Security Income (SSI), as a public benefit due to their own mental or physical disability and financial need. Or second, through Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI), if a parent or guardian has paid enough money 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, intended to help youth when a parent or guardian can no longer provide for them.
In the case of Jackson’s kids, Zaveonte and Xavier Winn, the benefits came from an earlier adoptive parent, a nurse who’d taken care of the boys for six years until her death led to their placement back in the foster-care system.
This money is not intended to be a funding stream for foster care, which is paid for nationwide through federal, state, and local taxpayer dollars, say experts in child welfare and Social Security laws. But state and county child welfare offices around the nation, including Philadelphia’s, have made a routine of taking money as an offset for room, board, and other services provided to children in their care.
Figures calculated by the research organization Child Trends and a Marshall Project/NPR investigation from this spring show that most foster-care agencies analyze children’s records to determine if they are eligible for such payments, then apply to become what’s known as the child’s “representative payee.” Such financial representatives are required by law to act in the best interests of the children, who legally own the money even if they cannot manage it. Typically, the youths involved never know any of this is happening, nor do their court-appointed lawyers, a central point in a Alaska class-action Superior Court verdict, which held — like the Maryland court — that kids in foster care were being denied their due-process rights.
In response to more than a dozen written questions about its practices, DHS sent a brief response that didn’t address most of the matters asked:
“When SSA appoints DHS as the representative payee, the funding is spent on youth’s daily care, such as food, clothing, and shelter. Philadelphia collects benefits as allowed by law and is open to improving its practice as it relates to this issue. To confirm, it is lawful for DHS to collect survivor’s benefits.”
Child advocates say DHS’s process, however, is at best grossly unfair. By federal law, governmental child-welfare agencies are required to provide services to kids in foster care. Children are not legally responsible to pay for such services.
“Under no circumstances should the government be taking money from kids,” said Cervone. “… What we can all agree on is a youth coming out of care is going to need that money a lot more tomorrow than the government does today. You’re not just taking from their present when you take that money, you’re taking from their future. And it’s unconscionable.”
Jackson, though, was flummoxed. He asked the boys if they knew of any checks being sent out in their names. Xavier, now 14, has what the family describes as special medical and educational needs. Jackson asked if perhaps there were disability checks. But the boys knew nothing about it.
Only a fortuitous connection would lead Jackson to answers.
‘Happening to a lot of people’
Just a few days after the puzzling phone call, Jackson took Xavier to a medical appointment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There, he told Xavier’s doctor about the odd termination of the family’s SNAP benefits.
They were in luck, the doctor told him. CHOP has a medical-legal partnership with Community Legal Services (CLS).
On Jackson’s behalf, Liz Soltan, then a staff attorney at CLS, dug into Jackson’s case and eventually received a document from the Social Security Administration that disclosed DHS had been receiving the boys’ funds after their adoptive mother’s death. The records weren’t complete, but DHS had evidently been collecting the money for at least three years, including the then-nine months since Jackson became their guardian.
Why, she wondered, had DHS continued collecting money for so long after the Winns were no longer in its care?
Her interest was further piqued by the form, a spreadsheet, the SSA had used to send her the information. “The fact that the SSA was using a spreadsheet suggested this was happening to a lot of people,” she said.
Her hunch was right. Documents released by Philadelphia DHS in response to a Resolve Philly/Inquirer public records request show that in a typical year, DHS collected $1.3 million from about 380 youth in foster care. Upon finding out his new kids represented some small slice of that, Jackson said his bewilderment turned to shock:
“How was DHS getting these boys’ money?”
‘On a knife’s edge’
Daniel L. Hatcher, a University of Baltimore law professor and author of The Poverty Industry, can provide some context. Hatcher is an expert in the conflicts between government agencies’ revenue-maximization strategies and their core missions to serve low-income children. State agencies often regard the use of Social Security funds as a settled matter, Hatcher said, pointing to 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case, Washington state v. Keffeler. However, that ruling only held that agencies did not violate the Social Security Act by using foster children’s benefits to subsidize their care, and “left open some significant areas for attorneys to challenge the practice,” he said.
Among them, lawyers can challenge it for violating a children’s due-process rights by not alerting them their benefits were being diverted, as well as for violating their rights to be treated equally to other foster children who don’t have survivor or disability benefits and aren’t being required to pay for part of their care.
The court cases in Alaska and Maryland have successfully challenged the practice, federal legislation is being proposed, and some local legislation has already been passed.
Close to home, not all counties follow Philadelphia’s lead. Lancaster and Centre Counties, for instance, alert court advocates for foster youth when they start and stop receiving the benefit payments, according to Right to Know requests to those and six other Pennsylvania counties. An Allegheny County DHS spokesperson wrote in an email that the Resolve Philly/Inquirer inquiry, as well as national attention on the issue, had prompted it to review many of its procedures, including notifying youth when the agency becomes their representative payee.
Philadelphia DHS said it has no process in place to provide notice to youth whose money is being collected. The agency did not respond to questions about why it collected money belonging to the Winns for nine months after they were no longer the city’s responsibility. (This Monday, a DHS spokesperson, referring to the idea of providing notice to foster youth or their lawyers, said in an email, “We will review our current practices to see how we can improve communication.”)
For youth in foster care, this money matters — a lot. Many exit the system to lead successful lives, but they are also more likely to face such challenges as increased rates of homelessness, substance addiction, increased health-care needs, and difficulty finding work.
These challenges are also why youth advocates say youth in foster care need the Social Security money that governments are currently harvesting for themselves. Alyssa Weinfurtner, associate director of emergency services at Valley Youth House, said: “These youth are operating a lot of times on a knife’s edge. Sometimes a few hundred dollars would make the difference between stability and homelessness, which has its own risks. Trauma, violence and human trafficking.”
For the Winns, recovering that money could lift their likelihood of having happy and productive lives.
Zaveonte is a senior at Motivation High School. Xavier has been attending life-skills training courses to prepare him for a work life and to tend to his own basic needs.
“These kids know, it ain’t like I am gonna kick them out when they turn 18,” Jackson said. “But I do need to prepare them, like my own kids, for the rest of their lives.”
Because Zaveonte is graduating later this school year, those talks have started taking on a more serious tone. “We’ve been having an ongoing conversation,” said Jackson. “‘What do you want to do?’”
Zaveonte, tall and thickly built, exhibits a gentle demeanor much like Jackson’s. He has been thinking about “the military or college.”
Jackson didn’t want to tell Zaveonte about the prospect of any Social Security money while Soltan continued to push their case through the Social Security Administration, which worked with DHS to try to resolve the issue.
Councilmember Cindy Bass vowed to hold hearings on DHS’s practice of taking the Social Security money belonging to youth in foster care. “We’re talking about children who have lost the stabilizing forces in their lives,” said Bass, “and now the benefits that are due to that child, DHS is taking them and using it to compensate themselves. It’s deplorable. That money is too small to make a difference in the city budget. But as a direct impact and direct investment in the lives of individual young people, it would be huge.”
One possible remedy: In Los Angeles County, as of this summer, a new law will require the Department of Children and Family Services to open savings accounts for those receiving Social Security payments, so the money is there for them when they attain legal independence.
The good news
Finally, late this fall, Jackson got the good news. The family would receive separate checks for $9,070, issued to each teen, reimbursement for money covering the payments DHS had collected after Jackson became the boys’ guardian. “I was surprised,” he said. “I wasn’t sure we’d ever see anything.”
With the checks in hand, he let Zaveonte and Xavier know what had happened. “He told us about the money and how much it was and he opened accounts for us,” Zaveonte said. It “feels good” to know they have something to get started with. He also said knowing that the money came from their adoptive mother, who cared for them for six years, “means a lot.”
The money they received, however, represents a fraction of the Social Security benefits DHS took in. Jackson has asked CLS to explore obtaining all the benefits money paid in Xavier and Zaveonte’s name, which could run to $30,000 or more for each.
Jackson and the Winns still have challenges to overcome.
During an after-school talk this fall, Jackson spoke frankly about the future the boys will have one day, without him.
“I won’t be here forever,” he said, then motioned to Xavier. “Zaveonte, I have told you, you are your brother’s keeper. Some day, he’ll be on your back.”
Zaveonte, unflinching, replied: “I got ’em. We’ve been together through everything.”
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The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly. Our Kids is a project of the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative examining the challenges and opportunities facing Philadelphia’s foster care system. Steve Volk is an investigative solutions reporter with Resolve Philly.