National advocates support Alaska foster children’s appeal over state taking their social security benefits

The Office of Children’s Services Building in Bethel. (Photo by Lakeidra Chavis/KYUK)
The Office of Children’s Services Building in Bethel. (Photo by Lakeidra Chavis/KYUK)

A national nonprofit that helps foster youth is supporting an appeal from a group of children filed late last year over the state taking their social security benefits.

In 2019, a Superior Court judge ruled against foster youth in a case where the state Office of Children’s Services had been applying for social security benefits on behalf of children who were entitled to the money due to a deceased parent or guardian.

“What Alaska was doing, similar to many other states, is automatically screening all kids who come into foster care to see if they’re eligible for any benefits,” said Amy Harfeld, national policy director for the San Diego-based Children’s Advocacy Institute. “And when they do this, they don’t tell the child or their attorney or guardian ad litem that they’re doing that.”

The state was putting that money into its OCS budget. Clinton Bennett, a spokesperson for Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services, said the agency — like parents — uses the benefits to pay for the children’s daily expenses, such as shelter and food, rather than just giving them cash.

The judge ruled against the foster youths’ request to be reimbursed for money the state took from their benefits. The judge also ruled against the foster youths’ claims that they were treated differently than children coming into OCS that didn’t have those social security benefits.

However, the judge did rule that the state had to notify children and their lawyers when they were applying for these benefits, a ruling the state is currently appealing.

In an amicus brief filed last month, Harfeld voiced support for an appeal from the plaintiffs that argued the state should foot the bill for caring for foster kids, and the children should receive all of the social security benefits they’re entitled to when they leave the foster care system.

“This is money that the parents earned and paid through their paycheck, and that’s supposed to be going to the children,” Harfeld said.

Harfeld says she hopes the appeal will be addressed at some point this summer. She says the plaintiffs are set to file another legal brief in late July in support of the court’s ruling that the state must notify foster children and their attorneys when they apply for social security on their behalf.

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