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Lawmakers adjourn without banning state from seizing benefits from Missouri foster kids

The Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City
There were 1,426 foster kids receiving benefits in Missouri as of July 2023.The state spent over $9.3 million in seized benefits last fiscal year.

Legislation that would have banned Missouri from seizing Social Security benefits from foster children was on the precipice of passing during the final days of the legislative session, but died when GOP infighting caused the state Senate adjourn early.

That means the state will continue to take millions of dollars in the next year in benefits and use the money to help pay for foster care.

“It’s more than disappointing,” said state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Scott City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors. “It is a disservice to every taxpayer and voter in this state for our Senate to run the way that it is.”

The result of the practice is that kids who are orphaned or have disabilities are responsible for paying toward the cost of their care in state custody, while foster kids who are ineligible for those benefits pay nothing.

The legislation would have forbidden that, instead requiring the state to use the benefits for the child’s unmet needs — not routine costs.

Rehder said she was expecting the bill to come up for a vote last Thursday, when the Senate suddenly descended into GOP infighting and adjourned for the day. When the Senate reconvened Friday, it was in session for only 10 minutes before going home for the year.

“When we have bills that matter to people’s lives — to children’s lives — right there ready to be taken up and passed, and instead of doing that, the actual work that we’ve been sent there to do, we play games and fight and say, if this bill isn’t gonna get done, nothing’s gonna get done. It’s insane,” Rehder said.

State Rep. Hannah Kelly, a Mountain View Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, said she heard from a foster child earlier this session who told her the bill would affect her personally as a recipient of survivor’s benefits.

“She lost parents, which means the state was taking her money and will continue to take her money,” Kelly said, “because we couldn’t get over ourselves and get past politics and pass a bill.”

Lori Ross, founder and CEO of the nonprofit FosterAdopt Connect, which advocated for the legislation, said the bill’s demise means another year of the state taking money that could otherwise be a valuable safety net for kids.

“By failing to make this change,” Ross told The Independent, “we are preventing our state’s most vulnerable children from accessing a critical means of support when they age out of the system and must navigate the world alone.”

It’s long been a common practice nationally to take foster kids’ benefits, but it’s come under increased scrutiny over the last few years. Several states, including Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon have halted the practice.

There were 1,426 foster kids receiving benefits in Missouri as of July 2023.The state spent over $9.3 million in seized benefits last fiscal year.

Versions of the bill won approval from both the House and Senate, passing through to the other chamber, so there were two possible vehicles to get the bill to the governor’s desk.

There was no clear opposition to the foster care benefits portion of the bills, though there was some opposition to an amendment tacked onto the version that cleared the Senate regarding child custody, designed to fix a bill passed last year.

The Senate version of the bill cleared a House committee, but was never brought up for debate in the House. Kelly said “all I know is it got stopped” before coming up for a vote.

She’s hopeful it will pass next year.

“If you’re an average kid out here, you’re gonna get that money,” Kelly said, referring to the benefits. “But these kids don’t get that money and nobody seems to care that should care. And I hope that changes next year.”

On the Senate side, Rehder said “perhaps it will be a better year for protecting children” next year. But with the chamber’s dysfunction, she said it’s hard to know.

“It’s an excellent policy and you know other states are moving towards this that haven’t already” Rehder said “…We have to fix some things in the Senate. And until we do, I don’t know, I don’t know what any bill’s chances are.”

Jason White, a foster parent from Kansas City, traveled to testify in support of the legislation earlier this year.

The state seized his foster son’s survivor’s benefits, which amounted to around $30,000, White said in an interview with The Independent. Now 20, his son has “zero dollars” and little support to transition to adulthood.

White said this is an issue that affects “thousands of kids with little to nothing” and the reason to take it on is simply “to do the right thing.”

“I’m very disappointed,” White said, “that cheap politics killed this legislation.”

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