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State keeps benefits intended for foster kids. A push is on to end the practice.

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State keeps benefits intended for foster kids. A push is on to end the practice.

Jun 24, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Annmarie Timmins
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State keeps benefits intended for foster kids. A push is on to end the practice.
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Dawson Hayes, 16, of Concord, learned when he was adopted out of foster care that the state was keeping the $16,000 he'd received in federal Social Security benefits. He urged lawmakers to pass a bill ending that practice. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Dawson Hayes spent about three years in foster care before he was adopted in February at age 16. As he was moved from foster home to foster home, Hayes thought about something his state case worker had told him. 

Once he was adopted or aged out of foster care, the state would hand over the nearly $16,000 in Social Security payments it had collected on his behalf. Hayes planned to invest it and maybe put the earnings into a duplex that would pay its own returns.

Hayes, of Concord, told lawmakers this year that he never saw the $16,000. 

New Hampshire, like many states, keeps Social Security and veterans benefits awarded to children while they are in foster care to help cover the cost of that care. That makes them the only foster care children in New Hampshire who pick up part of that expense.

Last year, the state collected about $521,000 in benefits from about 90 kids, who are eligible for benefits due to their own disability or based on a parent’s death or disability. The practice is legal but struck Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat, as wrong. 

It also surprised her – even after working on state budgets for nearly 30 years. After hearing about this practice in other states from an NPR story, Wallner discovered New Hampshire was doing the same. She introduced House Bill 1598 in January with hopes of redirecting the Social Security benefits from state coffers to children like Hayes. 

“Obviously, half a million dollars is significant,” Wallner said, referring to the associated loss in state revenue. “But it’s not in comparison to what it would mean to those children as they aged out of foster care.” 

In May, Hayes joined Wallner in testifying in support of the bill before the Senate Health and Human Service Committee, the first time he had spoken to lawmakers. 

“Foster kids need every advantage they can get,” he said. “And this obviously includes the Social Security or veterans benefits that are intended for them.” 

Hayes then gave lawmakers some statistics backed up by the National Foster Youth Institute: Fewer than half of foster kids graduate high school and only 3 percent get a college degree. Far more, about 22 percent, experience homelessness their first year out of foster care. 

In an interview last week, Hayes put his decision to testify this way: “I can’t get that money back, so what can I do to help?”

In 2021, nearly every state held onto Social Security benefits for children in foster care. To do so, states had to use the money to reimburse themselves for the cost of foster care. Far fewer states do so today.

The Children’s Advocacy Institute reported in April that approximately half of the states had reformed that practice, had tried to, or were considering it. 

Massachusetts ended its diversion of federal benefits this year. Missouri lawmakers appeared on track to stop the practice this year but failed to reach an agreement before the end of the legislative session. Similar efforts have failed in Maine and Washington

Wallner’s bill put New Hampshire among those states that tried to return benefits to foster children and fell short. While no one spoke against the bill and the Department of Health and Human Services legislative liaison said the department supported it, the department asked for more time to consider its implications. 

Lawmakers obliged and sent Gov. Chris Sununu an amended version of the bill that would leave the current practice in place and instead require DHHS to file a report by November detailing how Wallner’s proposal would impact the state budget. 

Hayes sent Sununu a letter urging him to sign the bill, ending it with a presumption he would. “I hope you will take my story into account when you sign HB 1598,” he wrote.

Wallner remains optimistic enough that if she’s reelected to the House, she plans to bring a new bill forward that incorporates the report’s findings. If she does, Hayes intends to again urge lawmakers to pass it. 

He will tell them again that receiving those federal benefits could be a first step toward self-sufficiency, whether it’s to pay rent, go to college, or buy a car. 

Hayes knows he has been fortunate to succeed without that money, in part because he has a stability other foster kids do not. 

He will graduate from Concord High School next year as a junior and begin pursuing electrician classes. He has a summer job. With help from his adoptive father and financial advisers he’s met, he’s learned to invest wisely. 

His adoptive mother, Carolyn Mallon of Concord, thinks about the children who don’t have that kind of stability and support.

She and her husband fostered Hayes’ older sister, now 19, and bought her a car when she moved out. That car has allowed her to get a job, Mallon said. When she ages out of foster care in the next couple of years, she’ll lose her housing assistance.

“If she didn’t have a car right now, she would be living on food stamps,” Mallon said. “These are real kids who can really end up homeless and the state is keeping that money. This money comes straight out of the pockets of the children who need it most right now and that’s absurd.”