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Growing push seeks to prevent the state from taking millions in benefits from foster kids

Over the past four years, Hawaii has taken more than $1.5 million from kids living in foster care in the form of Social Security payments & survivor’s benefits.
Published: Apr. 28, 2022 at 4:09 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 28, 2022 at 6:33 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Over the past four years, Hawaii has taken more than $1.5 million from kids living in foster care in the form of Social Security payments and survivor’s benefits.

The state says it’s using the money to make sure those kids are taken care of.

But critics argue it’s not the state’s money to spend, and now there’s a push to change the little-known policy.

“Quite frankly it’s very unfair,” said state Rep. Patrick Branco, who recently proposed a resolution calling on the state to halt its practice of using children’s Social Security benefits to pay for their care.

It would make Hawaii the second state in the country to change the policy.

“I take the view that DHS does not have the right to this money,” Branco said.

‘They already have a hard life’

Vanessa Lucas, 19, aged out of foster care last year after graduating from Pearl City High School.

She’s among those whose survivor’s benefits were taken by the state.

Lucas says being on her own is tough and the responsibilities are endless.

“When I was in high school I always wanted to just graduate already,” she said. “And it’s just like now, I want to go back.”

She says not having parents ― or anyone really ― to fall back on makes things even harder.

“I do have a little brother,” Lucas said. “Being separated when we were in care, it was hard just because that’s when we needed each other the most.”

Her father died when she was 7, which made her eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits.

“I was getting at least a grand a month,” she said.

That’s money she could have claimed once she turned 18.

But what Lucas didn’t know is once she entered the foster system, the state applied to receive the funds on her behalf and then started using it to pay her foster parents. Meanwhile, foster children who aren’t entitled to Social Security income or benefits don’t have to pay a thing.

Forced to make it all on her own, Lucas is now joining with others to advocate for change so others like her can have more of a safety net and a chance to really succeed.

“They’re already having a hard life you know,” Lucas said, of foster kids. “It would help them out a lot.”

‘We’re not setting up kids for success’

There are close to 3,000 children in Hawaii’s foster care system.

On average, the state received Social Security payments on behalf of 37 youth a year between 2018 and 2021. Those benefits during that time period totaled close to $1.5 million.

“It’s placed in a trust account into our state General Fund,” said Daisy Hartsfield, state Department of Human Services administrator. She says if money wasn’t taken from those children’s accounts, the state would have to pick up the tab.

That’s because for the vast majority of foster youth, DHS can seek partial federal reimbursement to help cover the cost of their care.

“However, for children who receive these SSI or SS program benefits, they don’t qualify for those same type of reimbursements,” Hartsfield said.

Branco, the lawmaker, argues foster care is a service that no child should have to pay for.

“By doing this we’re not setting up or kids for success,” he said.

“Three to four percent of them, that’s the national average, actually go to university when they come out of foster care programs. In my opinion it’s their money for their future.”

‘I have all these bills to pay’

Lucas says one day she’d like to become a flight attendant.

“But, I don’t know,” she said, pondering the idea.

Right now, it’s a dream the 19-year-old isn’t sure she can accomplish on her own.

When she graduated, there was $16,000 in her trust account. It’s what was left the state deducted all her foster board payments: $776 every month.

She’s one of the lucky ones. Some children end up with nothing.

Lucas said she did her best to make it last.

“But then I have all these bills to pay,” she said.

Hartsfield said the state is “open to reviewing and reassessing our current policy and programs. If we can come up with something better, by all means we’ll take that into consideration.”

The agency added there are also several programs available for foster youth to help them as they enter adulthood.

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