Maryland keeps orphans’ Social Security benefits

By: Barbara Hollingsworth

Public officials in Maryland often justify their excessive spending of other people’s money by pretending to be champions of the poor and downtrodden. Don’t fall for it. Maryland is just one of many states that apply for — and keep — Social Security benefits that legally belong to children in foster care.

This is happening to tens of thousands of foster kids nationwide, says Dr. Daniel Hatcher, associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore. Child welfare agencies regularly file for Social Security benefits that should go to orphaned or disabled foster kids, then pocket the money in their budgets, leaving their young charges with no financial resources when they leave the system at age 18.

Since Social Security benefits legally belong to the minor child, whoever receives the money has a fiduciary responsibility to spend it in the child’s best interest. This is a broad standard, but padding bureaucratic budgets doesn’t even come close.

Ninety percent of the Social Security Administration’s “representative payees” are government agencies, even though they’re supposed to be the least preferred custodians of foster children’s benefits.

The SSA even set up an automated “kiddie loop” to expedite the transfer of funds so bureaucrats don’t have to work so hard to get at the dough. “Picking the state agency is the easiest choice,” Hatcher points out, adding that there’s nothing in SSA regulations that allows for this practice.

Not only do foster children get no benefit from their own benefits, they often have no idea that child welfare agencies are keeping their money. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this despicable practice in Washington State Department of Social and Health Services v. Guardianship Estate of Keffeler, Hatcher says.

But, he notes, the Court did not address the breach of fiduciary duty or the violation of foster children’s property and equal protection rights without due process.

So in 2008, he filed a lawsuit on behalf of then-21-year-old Alex Myers of Dundalk, Maryland, who was 11 when his mother died in 1999. While in foster care, Myers was moved to at least 20 homes, none permanent.

In 2001 when his father died, he became eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. Unbeknownst to him, the Baltimore County Department of Social Services applied for — and kept –$16,000 that should have gone to him. He only found out when he aged out of foster care at age 18, penniless and on his own.

The motion to dismiss submitted by Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler’s office sums up the state’s attitude. Assistant attorney general Julia Bernhardt argued in court that Myers’ complaint should be thrown out because of his “failure to file … within the applicable period.”

In other words, the State of Maryland thinks that a teenaged orphan should have figured it out all by himself that the adults in charge of taking care of him were secretly stealing his Social Security checks, and then found a lawyer to assert his rights in court before the statute of limitations ran out. He didn’t, so too bad for him.

Bernhardt did not return a call from The Examiner asking whether she thought it was right or appropriate for bureaucrats to divert Social Security benefits away from orphans to government.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Mickey J. Norman accepted this legalistic nonsense and dismissed the case, thus allowing Maryland’s soulless bureaucrats to use the same foster children forced by a cruel fate to depend on them for their sustenance as a revenue stream.

Dr. Hatcher expects his appeal to be heard this summer. But should anybody be surprised that a government so devoid of common decency has no problem fleecing taxpayers as well?

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner’s local opinion editor.