What’s the Latest Outrage About Foster Care? Identity Theft

Wow.  This is one I didn’t see coming.  It never occurred to me.  This article tells us about yet another outrage of the foster care system – identity theft (Sacramento Bee, 6/26/11).

It seems that sometimes foster parents are just in it for the money – the kid’s money that is.  But surely kids placed in foster care don’t have much money, right?  Right, but they do have names and social security numbers and with those, foster parents and indeed anyone, can establish lines of credit that they have no intention of repaying.  Why would they?  The debt’s not in their name.

Oddly enough, the article is about identity theft by foster parents, but the horrendous example it gives is of a girl who’s biological mother did the same thing.

Four years after Sacramento County Child Protective Services removed Katrina Haywood from her mother’s abusive grip, the woman still has managed to stand in the way of her daughter entering college, finding a job or paying for the roof over her head.

Haywood, 18, has spent the past two months starting to clean up a mess that foster care workers say she couldn’t have prevented.

Eight entities, including Bank of America and Pacific Gas & Electric, want a total of $6,000 from Haywood. She says her birth mother started opening lines of credit using subtly crafted aliases and Haywood’s Social Security number. Since the bills weren’t paid, the credit history associated with Haywood’s Social Security number is filled with accounts in poor standing.

Amazing as all that is, you might wonder how prevalent the practice is.  The astonishing answer is that, while no one knows for sure, it might occur in as many as half the cases.

Exiting the state’s 60,000-member foster system at about the age of 18 is hard enough for teenagers such as Haywood. For one to five out of every 10 children, the situation is even worse. Their Social Security numbers and birthdays, easily accessible to birth parents, foster parents, siblings, social workers and courts, were hijacked so others could get quick cash from banks, keep electricity and water flowing, avoid criminal conviction or even save on taxes and medical costs.

“You’re completely at their whim as children,” said Sacramento-area social worker John Morton.

Keep in mind that, in most cases, when foster kids turn 18, they’re on their own.  Their foster parents will no longer receive state funds for caring for them, so they don’t.  As the article says, that’s hard enough on an 18-year-old.  But when he/she steps out into adult life saddled with a mountain of bad credit, it’s much, much worse.

“If your credit is bad, you really can’t do anything,” Haywood said. “You’re hit with this big boulder and it just becomes a burden on your shoulder.”

She said Target, Century Theatres, Walgreens, Sacramento’s Department of Parks and Recreation and nearly a dozen other employers rejected her due to the bad credit. Haywood said appealing to some of them with a pile of documents didn’t help.

She wants to attend Sacramento City College, but hasn’t found anyone to finance a loan. She’s living in a friend’s apartment, where the manager won’t assign her a lease.

Peter Samuelson, who runs the national foster children advocacy group known as First Start, said the teenagers are deemed “deadbeats through no fault of their own.”

And it’s not a problem that goes away quickly or easily.  In this economy, issuers of credit are notoriously leery of anyone they see as a bad risk.  That would include a lot of 18-year-olds anyway, but those with large amounts of bad debt don’t have a chance.

Haywood is luckier than most.  She’s found an attorney who’s working pro bono to erase the fraudulent debts from her record.  The fact that she wasn’t legally an adult when her mother incurred the debts works in her favor.

Five years ago, the State of California passed a law requiring social workers to get credit reports on every child in foster care when they turn 16.  Unfortunately, budget concerns delayed implementation of the law, so it wasn’t in place to protect Haywood from her mother.

And there will soon be a bill in the U.S. Congress ordering yearly credit checks for all kids in foster care.

As an aside, there’s not a word in the article about what happened to Haywood’s mother.  After all, defrauding lending institutions is a crime at the federal and state levels, so she ought to be in prison.  I’d like to know if she is. 

I suspect that this aspect of foster care is not well known.  But it’s worth remembering, particularly by CPS workers whose preference for foster care over father care was established years ago by the Urban Institute.  There are many reasons why that’s not a good idea.  Now we know that there’s one more.

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