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Editorial: Hands off orphans’ money

A callous side of Maryland’s high court was on prominent display earlier this month when it ruled that the state has authority to take monetary benefits awarded to orphaned children to help pay for their foster care.

Perhaps the majority of judges thought that a portion of their ruling requiring the state to inform the child and his/her lawyer or guardian when it applies to garnish death benefits would be enough to mitigate any harm.

It isn’t.

The decision here, in which former Chief Judge Robert Bell and Judge Sally Adkins dissented, serves only to create greater distress for children in already tenuous situations. The child at the heart of this particular case, Ryan W., was already in foster care when his parents (who were struggling with drugs and alcohol) died.

Now, rather than extending a helping hand to Ryan and others in tough situations — nationally, only about 50 percent of children in foster care are ever reunited with their parents or primary caregivers — the state is going to take what little financial boost he might have had.

In Ryan’s case, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services had filed an application with the Social Security Administration to become his payee for Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance. After the application was approved, the department did not notify Ryan W., his lawyer or the juvenile court.

That’s just plain cold.

But, according to state officials, this is standard practice.

To be sure, foster care is not inexpensive. Per child, it can cost the state as much as $965 per month, according to the Department of Human Resources. The total amount the Baltimore department received to pay for Ryan’s care was about $32,000, all of which went to pay for his foster care.

When the figures are tallied — in 2011, one out of every 250 children in Maryland was in the foster care system, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation — that’s a lot of money per year.

Who should pay for that care is another matter, however. From a procedural standpoint, the state may be operating under legally sound, longstanding practices in seeking the cash from children, but there’s a moral question to be asked about the collective responsibility in caring for those in need.

University of Baltimore School of Law professor Daniel L. Hatcher, who filed an amicus brief in Ryan’s case, doesn’t think it should be children who pay.

“If foster care agencies are underfunded, is it really good policy to take assets for abused and neglected children in order to gain more government revenue?” he asked The Daily Record. “I obviously think the answer to that is no.”

Obviously.