June 15, 2022 | Press Release

Nadeau Introduces Bill Preventing Government from Seizing Foster Children’s Federal Benefits 

Contact: Jaqueline Castaneda, Communications: (202) 262-8998/ jcastaneda@dccouncil.us

Washington – Yesterday, in an effort to put youth aging out of foster care on strong financial footing, Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau introduced the Preserving Our Kids’ Equity Through Trusts Amendment Act of 2022, or POKETT Act. She was joined by Councilmembers Lewis George, Cheh, Bonds, Henderson, Pinto, and Robert White. The POKETT Act would ensure that the federal survivor and disability benefits of youth in foster care are put in protected accounts, rather than being used to meet children’s needs while they are in the District ’s care. When youth leave care, they would gain access to the benefits, which are their property under federal law, promoting a smooth transition to financial independence.  

“I regularly hear concerns from youth in foster care about their financial stability as they become independent,” said Councilmember Nadeau. “It turns out, we already have a mechanism to provide them with a nest egg, and with this legislation, we will ensure those funds are available to them.” 

Reporting from Ward 1 resident and National Public Radio correspondent Joseph Shapiro has shown that foster care agencies across the country take over $165 million a year from children in care who have been orphaned or who are living with disabilities. The District is one of 37 jurisdictions in which agencies identify children entitled to Social Security benefits, apply for benefits on their behalf, and seize the benefits once they are disbursed. In the District, those funds are stored in a special purpose revenue fund and used for expenses like field trips and haircuts. Once a child leaves care, any remaining balance is returned to the Social Security Administration. The Child and Family Services Agency currently serves as the representative payee for 123 children in its care.  

This legislation would send approximately $1 million a year back to foster youth by replacing the money previously stored in the special purpose revenue fund with local dollars and requiring the Child and Family Services Agency to conserve children’s benefits in funds that do not jeopardize their future eligibility for benefits. Youth would receive financial literacy and management training before gaining access to the funds, which they would be able to use for the costs of housing, college, childcare, and the many other needs that youth leaving care often find difficult to meet. 

The practice of using children’s funds to pay for the costs of care has been challenged on equal protection and due process grounds. Maryland, Los Angeles, New York City, and Philadelphia have recently taken steps to prohibit the practice. Councilmember Nadeau’s bill, crafted in collaboration with leading child welfare and benefits conservation experts from across the country, provides children’s benefits with the most robust protection of any legislation introduced to date. 

According to Daniel Hatcher, Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and author of The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens, child welfare agencies “have been engaged in a harmful revenue practice, searching for children who are disabled or have deceased parents and then taking their survivor and disability benefits—so that the children often age out of care penniless. I applaud the leadership of Councilmember Nadeau and her excellent staff in sponsoring crucially needed legislation to stop this practice in D.C. and protect foster youth’s resources for their struggle against the odds as they leave foster care.” 

Professor Hatcher and Amy Harfeld, Senior Staff Attorney at the University of San Diego’s Children’s Advocacy Institute, provided extensive technical assistance in the drafting of the POKETT Act. “Disabled and orphaned foster youth,” said Harfeld, “should not be forced to foot the bill for their care—that's the duty of the agency who removed them from their families. This bill puts DC back into alignment with that premise, and out ahead of most states. If we are ever to build a child welfare system worthy of the young people it serves, we must act with integrity and transparency. This bill is a good start.” 

Judith Sandalow, Executive Director of Children’s Law Center, which also collaborated on the bill, agreed. “This legislation is a smart solution that will help more DC families access their federal benefits and save funds for children in foster care,” said Sandalow. “It will build a much-needed financial cushion for older foster youth as they transition into adulthood and provide resources that will keep children out of foster care.” 

The necessity of legislation like the POKETT Act was first brought to Councilmember Nadeau’s attention by current foster parents of youth affected by the District’s representative payee practice and by former foster youth themselves. One of those foster parents was Kevin McGilly, who notes that the money being used by the District for children’s care “belongs to [the children], and it shouldn’t be taken from them just because they happen to be in foster care. That’s wrong, and this bill fixes it.  

“The bill not only ends that inequity, it also ensures that Social Security benefits DC foster kids are entitled to are collected and secured for their futures. This could be life-changing for older youth who age out of foster care, giving them a small nest egg as they start life on their own. 
I want to thank Councilmember Nadeau and her staff for addressing this equity issue and making our city a bit fairer for the most vulnerable members of our community.”