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December 11, 2005 permalink
For those of you still having doubts, the main objective of child protectors is not children, but money. The following story shows the efforts of child protectors to raid the inheritance of one of their wards.
Lorraine Ahearn: A bleak house -- foreclosing on a boy at age 15
Article published Dec 4, 2005
Out of the endless cast of adults to come and go out of this boy's life, bit players in a ruthless, long-running reality show, the only one who really kept his word was a church janitor.
His name was Tracy Studivent, and before he died in 1994, he drew up a will. In it, he left what little he had to his adoptive son, then a toddler. There was a modest CD account, a monthly survivor benefit from Social Security, and the little house on Partnership Court, for which Studivent made a small mortgage payment each month to Habitat for Humanity. It was all he had, and he left it to his son, John.
More than a decade later, the 15-year-old is about to have his house foreclosed upon. His legal guardian, the Department of Social Services, cashes and keeps his $538 monthly survivor benefit to go toward John's upkeep in foster care.
And because the $221 mortgage payment hasn't been made in a year, Habitat is seeking to foreclose on the house, which now sits vacant and boarded up, with a stack of "Condemned" notices tacked to the front door because the grass isn't cut and the utilities are turned off.
So on Friday, John found himself at the center of a dense, bitter, lawyer-heavy hearing on probate, trusteeship and bureaucratic jurisdiction. Big words at the worldly age of 15.
"People say life comes at you fast," the friendly, soft-voiced youth mused as he waited all day in a back room at the courthouse for his case to be called. "Now, I see what they mean."
As John played computer solitaire and fidgeted away a missed school day, six attorneys and a handful of social workers drew battle lines in a unique challenge to the DSS.
In the hearing, to be continued this week, advocates from the Guardian ad Litem program, allied with a unit from Legal Aid, asked a judge to protect the boy's house from foreclosure and stop the DSS from using the boy's money to reimburse itself.
The assistant county attorney for DSS, Lynn Shifton, countered that the actual cost of the boy's foster care is $1,333 per month -- more than twice the survivor benefit John receives -- and that the agency's first duty is to spend the benefit on "current" needs.
That raised the question of whether a foster care child "owes" the DSS, assets or no assets: "If he's in DSS custody," said District Court Judge Susan Bray, "his needs are going to be met regardless."
Though the DSS lawyer pointedly questioned why the newspaper would cover a seemingly obscure -- but public -- juvenile hearing, several of the juvenile advocates and the judge said the case appeared to be a first.
Even with the volume of cases on the juvenile docket -- rivers of splintered families and abandoned children -- the judge told attorneys that John's case had stood out over the years. John was, Bray said, the only child she knew of who owned a house.
"As the 'parent,' when a child has an asset such as a trust fund or a bank account," Bray asked, "don't you have an obligation to try to preserve that?"
The long-languishing case came to a head as child advocates have increasingly warned of the crisis known as "aging out" -- that is, foster care children turning 18 and entering the adult world alone and destitute.
Even at 15, John's story is a trail of broken promises. Abandoned by his biological parents, he was left after Studivent's death with a stepmother he said had him sell drugs for her.
He was next placed with an aunt, who without making their house payment kept John's $538 monthly check. A DSS worker told Judge Bray that the aunt received adoption assistance funds for months after Bray ordered John be taken from the aunt and placed in foster care by the DSS.
After a year of receiving no house payments and no action by the DSS, Habitat operations officer Phil Barbee said he saw little choice but to foreclose and protect John's equity, before the house further depreciates.
As for John? Bored and miserable in his button-down court clothes, the big words sailed over his head. Mostly, he hopes to buy a car one day.
"What's that word for what you need ... insurance?" he said, wondering if Medicare covers that. "If I can't afford to buy a car, I'll just rent one."
Contact Lorraine Ahearn at 373-7334 or email@example.com
Source: Greensboro News-Record
Addendum: A court decision two years later favored using social security funds to make the mortgage payments, protecting the child's equity.
Posted on Wed, Nov. 07, 2007
Court backs teen against DSS
Decision prevents agency from paying itself with 17-year-old's Social Security benefits
ERIC FRAZIER, firstname.lastname@example.org
In a decision that could affect foster children across North Carolina, the state's second-highest court on Tuesday blocked Guilford County social workers from taking a child's Social Security benefits as reimbursement for caring for him.
The case could also have national implications, child welfare advocates say.
The 17-year-old boy, identified only as John G., has an $80,000 house his late adoptive father willed to him. The home was threatened with foreclosure because DSS officials wouldn't use his $538 per month Social Security payment to handle the monthly $221 mortgage.
A judge in 2005 ordered the Guilford County Department of Social Services to apply the boy's Social Security benefits toward the mortgage. But Guilford DSS, like DSS agencies across the state, routinely takes foster children's Social Security benefits as reimbursement for the cost of feeding, clothing and housing the youth.
Mecklenburg officials say, for instance, that they have taken more than $369,000 in Social Security benefits from January to October of this year. An average of 81 children were affected each month.
Cash-strapped DSS officials around the state say they need the money to care for the children, but child advocates equate it to stealing money from abused, neglected and disabled children.
The ruling doesn't automatically block Mecklenburg and other counties from taking Social Security money, but it gives child advocates legal basis to challenge cases like John G.'s in court.
"It's useful for John, useful for the state and maybe can be leveraged nationally," said Lewis Pitts, the Legal Aid of North Carolina lawyer who represented the teen.
"This opportunity should be seized to say to DSS and all child welfare agencies that we realize you have a budget nightmare, but don't take it out from the children."
The Congressional Research Service estimates states take about $150 million a year from foster children. The practice is attracting so much attention that John G.'s fight landed on the front page of The New York Times last year. U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., cited the case early this year in introducing a bill to protect the Social Security benefits of about 30,000 children nationally.
The bill is pending, his office said.
First Star, a national child welfare reform group in Washington, D.C., filed a brief in the case supporting John G.
"This is really the first step in the direction of nationally recognizing that a child has an interest in their own benefits," said Amy Harfeld, First Star's executive director.
"It has major national implications for foster children. I think most people would agree it's unconscionable for states to dip into the pockets of these most vulnerable children just to balance their budgets."
Guilford DSS officials didn't respond to calls and e-mails Tuesday seeking comment, so it was unclear whether they would appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court. Lawyers for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services were studying the ruling, a spokeswoman said, but had no immediate comment.
Pitts said DSS has continued to pay the mortgage while it fights the case in court.
The agency contends that, as the payee for John G.'s Social Security benefits, it had the right to use the money for the boy's care. It argued that federal law protects such benefits from being taken through garnishment, bankruptcy or any other "legal process."
DSS argued that the state judge who ordered the mortgage paid had violated federal law by subjecting the boy's federal benefits to "legal process." The Court of Appeals, however, said that the federal law was designed to protect Social Security recipients' money from creditors, not to help local governments take it.
DSS' interpretation of the law "is an improper attempt to fashion a shield into a sword to be used against the intended beneficiary of the law," the judges wrote.
Eric Frazier: 704-358-5145.
Source: Charlotte Observer