Protecting Social Security Benefits for Youth in Foster Care

by John Kelly

About 1 in 10 youth in foster care are entitled to Social Security benefits either due to physical or mental disability, or they are the named beneficiary of one or both of their parents. This money can be life-changing, especially for young people between the ages of 18 and 21 entering adulthood. 

A recent investigation exposed that numerous state child welfare agencies sign up to receive these funds on behalf of children in foster care. And in many of those cases, the Marshall Project and NPR investigation showed the money is used to cover the basic costs of foster care, something not allowed under federal Social Security guidelines. While a child welfare agency can be a recipient of Social Security benefits, those funds should be applied above and beyond the regular costs associated with caring for any youth in foster care. 

As a caregiver or caseworker of a youth in foster care, there are steps which can be taken to ensure these benefits are either saved for their future, or used to support the youth in the present. Following are some practical steps to consider. 

Find out if the youth is already receiving benefits.

It’s possible that by the time a child comes into your life, they’ve already been approved for disability or death benefits. In fact, the child welfare agency may have been the one who enrolled them. 

The easiest way to find out is to ask the child’s caseworker. If they don’t know or are uncertain, contact the attorney assigned to the child and ask that they inquire about the child’s status. 

If the normal channels aren’t helpful, call the Social Security Administration (SSA) at 1-800-772-1213. The Marshall Project suggests this script for starting the conversation:

“My name is X, and I represent Y, who is a minor. I believe that someone may have been receiving Social Security in Y’s name, without them knowing it. Could you tell me Y’s benefits history — whether they have ever received survivor or disability benefits?” 

Not getting benefits? Help them apply.

If the youth is not receiving benefits, and you suspect they might be eligible, you can help them apply. 

There are two ways to determine if a youth is eligible for Social Security benefits. 

  1. One or both of their parents are deceased and they are entitled to support if a parent paid into Social Security. 
  2. The youth has a serious physical or mental condition, generally defined by the Social Security Administration as a condition that “seriously limits his or her activities,” and is expected to last at least one year or eventually result in death. 

If you believe that either situation applies to a youth in your care, or one you work with, visit: 


Make sure the money is well spent.

This will probably require help from the youth’s attorney. But if the state already receives Social Security benefits for a youth, request an itemized statement of how the money’s been spent in the best interests of the child. 

The most critical thing to be aware of is that the state should not use the money just to pay for foster care expenses like foster parent reimbursements, transportation to and from school and the agency’s own expenses. It should either be spent on special supports, equipment and services — things the child might otherwise not get — or it should be saved for their future. 

Talk about what you find with the youth, if age appropriate, and their attorney or court appointed special advocate. Decide if there are better ways these funds can be used, and consider who would be the best person to manage the benefit. 

Establish a manager for benefits.

The Social Security Administration has a prioritized list of people who can serve as the “payee” for a youth in foster care’s disability or survivor benefits. You can view that list in its entirety at, but in a nutshell the pecking order is: 

  • A parent who continues to be in the life of the child, especially those moving toward reunification.
  • A relative or close family friend.
  • A child welfare agency or other similar institution.

As a caregiver, you can help youth in foster care establish a new payee. Call the Social Security Administration — your best bet is the field office nearest your home — and set up a phone appointment to discuss removing a payee and adding a new one. The new payee will have to fill out a SSA-11-BK form.

Like many things involving government bureaucracies, the process to ensure a youth in foster care’s benefits are being used correctly to support them could involve long hold times and pushing for answers. But in the end, for eligible youth, these benefits offer a meaningful opportunity to meet their present-day needs or provide savings to help them transition into adulthood later.

This guide was put together using recommendations from The Marshall Project and from Amy Harfeld’s “Five Steps to Ensure Your Clients Are Benefitting from Their Federal Benefits,” which was published in June by the American Bar Association. •


John Kelly is co-executive director of Fostering Media Connections. Kelly is the founding editor of The Imprint, FMC’s daily news website covering the fields of child welfare, juvenile justice and other youth-related services. He has been reporting and editing coverage of youth services since 2001, and is passionate about connecting these fields to quality, independent journalism.