Fast Facts

Some children in foster care are eligible for funds from the Social Security Administration. Typically, SSA appoints a representative payee to manage these funds. Legislation in 2018 called for more information sharing between SSA and states on SSA beneficiaries in foster care and their payees.

The legislation didn't explicitly require state child welfare agencies to enter into data exchange agreements, according to SSA, but 31 states have done so. Of those, 14 states were actively sharing data with SSA as of April 2021. State agencies identified challenges to participating in these exchanges, such as lack of staff and technology issues.

Number of states and territories participating in data exchanges by status, as of April 2021

A bar graph showing the number of states and territories participating in data exchanges by status

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Highlights

What GAO Found

In cases where children in foster care are eligible to receive funds from the Social Security Administration (SSA), SSA generally selects and appoints an individual or organization to serve as a representative payee (payee) to manage these funds on the child's behalf. Children entitled to Social Security funds whose benefits are certified for payment to a representative payee are referred to as "represented minor beneficiaries." Section 103(a) of the Strengthening Protections for Social Security Beneficiaries Act of 2018 (the Act) directed SSA to enter into agreements with states to share and match SSA and child welfare data, on a monthly basis, to identify represented minor beneficiaries who are in foster care and for beneficiaries whose foster care arrangements have changed, to redetermine the appropriate payee.

As of April 2021, 31 state child welfare agencies had entered into an agreement with SSA to regularly share data on represented minor beneficiaries in foster care through data exchanges and, of these states, 14 were actively exchanging data with SSA. According to SSA, the Act does not explicitly state that states have an obligation to enter into data exchange agreements with SSA; nor does it provide SSA with a mechanism to compel states to do so or to do so within a certain time frame. SSA's first data exchange with a state was in April 2019, about one year after enactment of the Act.

In a national GAO survey, some state child welfare agencies identified challenges to participating in these data exchanges. According to SSA, many state child welfare agencies were hindered by factors such as insufficient funding or resources. GAO's national survey found that states, in general, identified available staff and technology issues as the most challenging factors to implementing or maintaining data exchanges after an agreement was signed. States with or without agreements generally did not report these or other factors as challenging to initially entering into a data exchange agreement with SSA.

SSA recently bolstered its outreach to states to encourage greater participation in the data exchanges. SSA staff said that, since 2019, it had been focusing its outreach on states that had expressed an early interest in participating. SSA recently widened its outreach efforts to include all states without an agreement or an active exchange.

Data submitted to SSA through the exchanges by the 11 states with active exchanges as of November 2020—the most recent available data at the time GAO conducted its analysis—show a total of about 5,900 represented minor beneficiaries in foster care for nine states in that month. Two additional states participating in the data exchange had not submitted data for November 2020 but in earlier months accounted for another 4,250 beneficiaries. Child welfare agencies were the payees for about one-half or more of the represented minor beneficiaries in foster care for nine of 11 states participating in the exchanges. In the other two states, individuals other than foster parents constituted the majority of representative payees.

National data from SSA show that child welfare agencies were the payees for about 81 percent of the more than 25,000 represented minor beneficiaries in foster care as of November 30, 2020; however, these data likely reflect an undercount. SSA staff stated the agency would not have complete information on these beneficiaries until all states were participating in the Section 103(a) data exchanges. According to SSA, information submitted through these exchanges has helped the agency identify over 5,500 instances in which it determined it should to appoint a new payee for a minor beneficiary in foster care.

SSA had sufficiently reliable accounting data for 2020 on child welfare agencies that served as payees for seven of the 11 states participating in the exchanges. These payees reported that Social Security funds were primarily used to cover the direct expenses of the beneficiary, such as for housing and food. Among the seven states, these payees conserved 15 percent or less of the Social Security funds on behalf of the beneficiary.

Why GAO Did This Study

Section 103(a) of the Strengthening Protections for Social Security Beneficiaries Act directed SSA to enter into agreements with states to regularly share and match child welfare and SSA data, and for any represented minor beneficiaries in foster care whose foster care arrangements have changed, to redetermine the appropriate payee.

The Act included a provision for GAO to provide information on these children. This report describes (1) the status of these data exchanges between SSA and state child welfare agencies and (2) available data on the number of represented minor beneficiaries in foster care and, for those beneficiaries, the type of payees and the use of Social Security funds. GAO analyzed available 2020 data from three separate SSA databases, including the data exchanges, and conducted a national survey of 53 state and territory child welfare agencies. GAO also examined documents from SSA on the Section 103(a) data exchanges and other related issues, reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations, and interviewed SSA officials.

For more information, contact Kathryn Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.

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