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News / Northwest

Washington is intercepting federal benefits bound for foster youth

The money gets dumped into the state budget. The agency that runs the state’s foster care system supports ending the practice, but hasn’t yet set a deadline.

By Grace Deng
Published: May 9, 2024, 2:20pm

Despite pressure to end the practice, Washington continues to divert federal benefits owed to foster youth to fund the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which runs the state’s foster care system.

That’s according to a report released last month by the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego, which grades each state based on how well it protects these benefits.

Nationwide, about 10% of foster youth are eligible for federal benefits, usually due to disability, Social Security accumulated by now-deceased parents and military benefits from parents who died while on active duty. That’s about 40,000 to 80,000 foster youth whose benefits, which can amount to over $900 a month, are being intercepted by state agencies.

States don’t report comprehensive data, so it’s hard to tell how many kids in Washington have had their benefits intercepted and how much money the state is capturing as a result, said Amy Harfeld, the institute’s national policy director.

“What the state is doing is taking their money behind their backs and spending it for themselves,” Harfeld said. “Foster children are not a revenue stream.”

Children, their guardians and social workers often aren’t notified when a child’s benefits get diverted to the state, the report says.

While at least 28 states and cities, including Washington, have taken steps to end the practice, only two in the report scored “A” grades, with laws clearly prohibiting it: Arizona and the District of Columbia. Forty-four states received “F” grades.

Washington received a “C” because while the state is working to end the practice, it’s not moving urgently enough, said Harfeld.

“The fact that DCYF voluntarily stepped up to participate in efforts to reform this policy is admirable,” Harfeld said. “But the department, just like in most other states, is faced with the very real fiscal limitations of providing the services they need to provide with a very limited budget.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Children, Youth and Families said it’s working to abolish the practice but has not set a deadline to end the policy. However, the agency plans to introduce legislation to conserve benefits for children and youth by the state’s 2025-2027 budget cycle.

The spokesperson, Nancy Gutierrez, said the policy “pre-dates the agency’s creation” and was created when the foster care system was run by the Department of Social and Health Services.

“We consider ending this practice to be very much in line with our recent successes in stopping the state from charging parents for their children’s incarceration and to stop the state from reimbursing itself out of child support benefits when children come into foster care,” Gutierrez said in an emailed statement.

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Awareness of the issue rose after a 2021 investigation by the Marshall Project and NPR.

Harfeld said Washington should have acted with the same urgency as Arizona and the District of Columbia, which passed legislation ending the practice in 2023 and 2022, respectively. A 2023 bill to ban the practice in Washington by 2027 passed the House but never made it to a Senate vote.

“They claimed, from my understanding, that they were overwhelmed by the prospect of how to implement this change,” Harfeld said, referring to the Department of Children, Youth and Families. “Other states have done this and are implementing it right now. It’s not mysterious, it’s not impossible.”

“Anytime you’re accustomed to taking someone else’s money and you have to stop, you’re going to have to deal with the repercussions of that,” she said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.