State wants to stop collecting foster kids’ benefits, but says funding needed to fill gap
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Dozens of children in Hawaii’s foster system are being stripped of money they may not even know is theirs as part of a controversial practice that’s attracting new criticism.
Under the policy, which HNN Investigates exposed about a year ago, the state pockets Social Security benefits intended for disabled and orphaned youth.
The state Department of Human Services recently said it stopped taking the money, but HNN confirmed that claim wasn’t true. Now, there’s a renewed push to change the policy ― like other states already have.
In foster care, children fall into two categories: The ones who pay for their care and the ones who don’t.
Of the more than 2,000 keiki currently in Hawaii’s foster system, the state says 97% don’t pay a dime. The costs are all covered by the state. But that’s not the case for children entitled to Social Security benefits.
DHS confirms its currently taking money from 55 kids and using it to pay their foster parents.
It’s a little-known practice that advocates for foster youth say is extremely unfair.
“DHS is claiming that if they don’t take this money from kids, the state would have to assume the full cost of paying for their foster care,” said Children’s Advocacy Institute National Policy Director Amy Harfeld.
“Well, that’s exactly the responsibility they have when they take a child into care.”
Over the past couple years, the issue has prompted lawmakers to propose multiple resolutions asking DHS to stop taking children’s benefits. Then in March, DHS filed testimony with the state claiming changes had been made.
In a two-page document dated March 16, officials said: “DHS immediately ceased intercepting Social Security payments” last year following the introduction of a similar resolution. It went on to ask lawmakers for a half-million dollars to make up for the money it’s losing from no longer taking children’s money.
But HNN confirmed those statements were not accurate.
The false information is still posted on the state Legislature’s website.
Harfeld questions how the erroneous information was made public.
“Could they explain making a statement like this,” Harfeld asked.
DHS officials said “the testimony submitted was the incorrect version and the error was not caught until after.”
The mistake was brought to the attention of lawmakers at a hearing on March 17..
Social Services Division Administrator Daisy Hartsfield added: “What actually occurred is that we immediately began discussions to consider how we can cease Social Security payments for use of foster board board reimbursements.”
In later testimony the department told lawmakers, “it’s willing to forego the use of Social Security benefits.”
But to make up the difference, the agency needs an additional $500,000 a year added to its budget.
Hartsfield told lawmakers, “We hope with that we’ll be able to make significant progress in terms of not relying on Social Security benefits for foster board reimbursements.”
In a statement, DHS further explained its position:
“While DHS changed its position as requested by last year’s resolution, the Legislature will need to appropriate general funds to DHS to replace the federal Social Security benefits available for the child’s care and will forego the ability to seek federal reimbursement for foster care expenditures as the State is deciding not to spend the Social Security benefits available for this purpose.”
If that happens, it would make Hawaii one a handful of states to do away with the controversial policy.
“It would appear that the agency is optimistic and a little bit ahead of themselves,” said Harfeld.
“At this point, I think we should hold their feet to the fire for executing the policy change.”
On Thursday morning, the Legislature’s latest resolution calling for DHS to stop taking the Social Security benefits cleared its latest hurdle passing through the Human Services committee.
Youth advocates say Social Security benefits should be put into an account so those children will have some savings to potentially go to school, buy a car and pay rent once they age out of the foster system.
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