When Marisa Pike was 18, she aged out of Massachusetts’ child welfare system and transitioned into adulthood with little to her name.
It was only when the young adult went to apply for food stamps that she heard for the first time that she had been receiving Social Security benefits for years. At her local Social Security office, she learned that she was supposed to be getting up to $800 in monthly benefits while in DCF care, which could have been nearly $60,000 during her years living in state custody.
Instead, she found herself homeless, collecting coins and crinkled dollars to pay for her commute to school.
Pike, now 25, shared that story Tuesday with a panel of state lawmakers, laying out what she sees as the stakes of a bill that would protect federal benefits owed to people like her — young adults who aged out of Massachusetts’ foster care system.
Pike was one of thousands of children in Department of Children and Families custody who have had most of their federal benefits diverted by the agency into the state’s coffers. That money — meant for children with disabilities or those who’ve suffered the death of a parent — has totaled more than $15 million over the last three calendar years, the Globe reported in July.
“With that money, my life would have changed,” Pike, now a foster parent herself, told lawmakers. “Rather than settling on a bench or a bus at the end of the night, I would have had a place to call mine. . . . It was a time where I questioned my existence and my life’s purpose.”
Senator Joanne M. Comerford a former foster parent and a sponsor of the legislation, called the situation “a true scandal.”
“This is a public agency taking public funds that are dedicated to youth in its care,” the Northampton Democrat said during the hearing. “When a foster child ages out of care, these vulnerable young adults don’t have the benefit of this financial safety net to help them out.”
The bill, sponsored by Pittsfield state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier in the House, would require the state to screen a child for benefit eligibility when they enter state custody, notify them of their eligibility, and conserve benefits and manage those savings for the child, relinquishing the money when the child reaches adulthood.
Many states, including Massachusetts, lean on a provision in federal regulations that allows the money to be used for costs related to a child’s care. The approach used in Massachusetts and elsewhere has come under scrutiny in recent years, with lawmakers across the country taking aim at what former foster kids and child advocates call a deceptive practice.
The agency has taken about 90 percent of children’s benefits over the years — according to its own policies — and directed it to the state’s general fund, rather than specifically to DCF.
According to DCF officials, the general fund pays upfront for providing care to foster children, which DCF reimburses. That includes money for foster parent stipends, clothing allowances, and living expenses.
Nearly 1,250 children in DCF custody qualified for such Social Security benefits late last year — roughly one out of seven youths in foster care at the time.
An 81-page report from the Disability Law Center released Tuesday found that Massachusetts diverts approximately $450,000 to $500,000 per month, or over $5.5 million per year, into the Commonwealth’s own coffers.
Massachusetts isn’t alone — almost every state in the country has collected Social Security benefits from children in its care, according to a 2021 report by the Marshall Project and NPR. Since then, several states and local jurisdictions have either passed or are considering legislation that would stop or limit agencies from taking more money.
Advocates who support the bill presented Tuesday say that using children’s Social Security money to reimburse the state amounts to theft and unfairly makes them pay for their own foster care. Young people aging out of care are also more likely to face major barriers to housing, access to higher education, and meaningful employment, they add, making that money even more crucial to the individual children involved.
“When DCF siphons away benefits and deposits them into the state’s General Fund, children lose access to money that is rightfully theirs, funds that could be saved for their long-term benefit,” Disability Law Center researchers wrote in their report. “Practically speaking, they are also penalized for being children in the foster care system with a disability or a disabled or deceased parent. . . . Presumably, this is a matter of convenience for the state.”
Passing the legislation would ensure that children receive the benefits that they are legally entitled to, advocates say, and provide more financial independence for those who age out of the foster care system, like Pike.
“Instead of enjoying the freedom of being 18, I resented it,” Pike said during her speech, which evoked rare applause from the State House’s Gardner Auditorium. “Not only do I owe this to the children entering the foster care system today, but the young adult I once was that didn’t see a way out of the darkness.”
Elizabeth Koh of the Globe staff contributed to this report.