"From shadows to the light:" Attorneys argue foster children's Social Security rights

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Five years after filing a complaint, a lawsuit against the State of Alaska for seizing the Social Security of children in foster care took one step toward resolution Tuesday morning.

There are two Social Security programs that some individuals in foster care may be eligible for. Since the children are not adults, a representative payee is responsible for managing the money.

Family or friends of a foster child could be considered a representative payee. In situations when another representative payee is not present, the state acts at the representative payee and receives the foster child's social security benefits.

When the Office of Children's Services is the representative payee it uses Social Security benefits to reimburse itself for the cost of providing foster care.

The lawsuit, brought by the Northern Justice Project, claims that the State of Alaska's Office of Children's Service is not notifying children that another person can request to be the child's representative payee, thereby depriving foster children of benefits they are eligible for.

"This is huge. It comes up over and over again that the state's collecting Social Security on behalf of young people in foster care and they don't even know it," said Amanda Metivier, founder of Facing Foster Care in Alaska.

The non-profit works to promote improvements in the foster care system and works with youth in the program, including the plaintiff in the case.

Although the case was originally filed in 2014, the last hearing took place in 2017. After that hearing, Judge William Morse posed 20 questions for both parties to answer and submit in writing. Tuesday's oral arguments were the first developments in the case since then.

"I think today went really well. I think the judge understands our points and what's important to youth in terms of rights to notice and to be able to identify a payee to be able to collect their own benefits," Metivier said.

The attorneys for the plaintiff's are seeking a ruling requiring the state to provide written notice of foster child's eligibility and the option to seek a representative payee other than the Office of Children's Services.

Attorney Goriune Dudukgian with the Northern Justice Project repeatedly characterized the lawsuit's goal as to "take what's happening from the shadows to the light."

The judge ended the hearing by asking the plaintiff's attorneys to draft what they would want that notice to look like. He also asked attorneys for both parties to submit a brief on Title IV-E of the Social Security Act and how it affects a person's eligibility.