A foster child gets cold feet on congressional appearance

by Jordan Green

A 16-year-old boy under the guardianship of the Guilford County Department of Social Services who has been caught in the middle of an ongoing legal battle over the agency’s use his Social Security benefits has decided against going to Washington to testify before a Congressional roundtable about the agency’s resistance to spending money on the upkeep of an inherited house that will be his when he ages out of the system at 18.

The sharply worded title of the briefing scheduled for Friday – “A Briefing on the State Practice of Robbing Disabled and Orphaned Foster Children of Their Social Security Benefits” – might seem an implicit criticism of the county agency, which is appealing a district court decision ordering it to apply benefits received on behalf of a foster child identified as John G. towards mortgage payments for a house the boy owns.

Hosted by Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from California, the briefing was to feature John G., his lawyer Lewis Pitts, a law professor from the University of Baltimore and a disabled former foster child named Shawnita T.

A hearing before Guilford County District Court Judge Teresa Vincent had been scheduled for Monday afternoon to resolve a disagreement between the Department of Social Services and the Guardian Ad Litem program about whether John G. should be allowed to go to Washington. That was before the boy changed his mind.

“Because of all the confusion, I guess I will not go,” John G. reportedly told Pitts at a meeting on Feb. 8.

A motion filed the next day by Guardian Ad Litem Honey Moore states that “John has been subjected to pulls and tugs over whether making the trip is a good thing for him,” which “has caused John considerable stress and confusion.”

In a previous motion, Moore described the trip as a “civic lesson” and noted it would be John G’s first experience flying on an airplane. Preventing the boy from making the trip, for which the Washington-based nonprofit First Star had already purchased tickets, “violates John’s constitutional rights to seek redress from the government,” Moore had added.

Social Services Director John Shore has expressed concerns about John G. missing school to attend the briefing in Washington and “about him becoming an exhibit in a public policy debate” in correspondence with the Guardian Ad Litem program, according to court records.

Since July 2004 when he came into state custody, the department has been the payee for about $538 per month in Social Security survivor’s benefits that John G. receives, according to one of the motions. The agency began pocketing the benefits to reimburse itself for the cost of the foster child’s care, and neglected to make the $221-per-month payments for the mortgage of the boy’s house.

District Court Judge Susan Bray ordered the department in December 2005 to catch up on the mortgage payments and make repairs to the house. The department is currently appealing that decision with the NC Court of Appeals.

While declining to comment specifically on John G.’s case, Social Services Deputy Director Steve Hayes said on Monday that the department finds itself stretching tight funding to meet its obligations to foster children.

“We don’t have adequate funding to provide everything we would like to for the children in our care,” he said. “I can tell you that local departments are in a catch 22 in trying to provide everything that these children need and make sure that we treat all children equally and that we live within the budget that the taxpayers have given us. And we try to do both of those.”

Rep. Brad Miller, a Democrat who represents North Carolina’s 13th district, said Monday that Rep. Stark asked him to sign a letter urging Judge Vincent to allow John G. to attend the briefing in Washington.

“I don’t want to minimize schoolwork but certainly testifying before a congressional committee would be a great educational opportunity,” he said. “I wanted to look into whether what he would tell us would be important for Congress to know about our policy for kids in foster care.”

Miller said before signing the letter he had hoped to talk to the social services department about their reasons for challenging the court order and objecting to their charge’s visit to Washington.

“I’m not going to jump on DSS with all four feet based upon a one-page letter,” he added, “and I really want to hear from them about their policy and why the policy is.”

Stark plans to introduce a bill called the “Foster Children Self Support Act” on Friday. The bill would protect foster children “by requiring states to develop a plan with the child and the child’s advocate to use that child’s Social Security benefits as a resource to best meet the current and future needs of the child, including setting aside money to use for education, housing and other needs for use when that child is emancipated,” he wrote in a letter urging colleagues to sign on as cosponsors. “Not only is the current practice a conflict of interest in the most fundamental sense, it is also a waste of valuable resources that could be helping emancipated foster children transition into self-sufficient and productive adults.”

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