May is National Foster Care Month, and it’s an important time to highlight the dire need for foster parents around the country. It’s also a time for the public to be mindful of what services are available for those in need, as well as how their tax dollars are put to great use helping children and families in times of crisis.
Sadly, one of the many hurts that a child can experience as a result of being placed in protective custody has less to do with family upheaval or abuse, and more to do with long-term future harm. Whether it’s non-custodial family members, “insiders” in the social services system, a revolving door of foster parents as children move from one household to another, or just a random criminal who seizes the opportunity, foster children can easily become victims of identity theft due to the abundance of people with access to their personal information.
The numbers aren’t very detailed as most regions do not track identity theft within the system. Los Angeles County, though, conducted a study and found that as many as 8% of 16- and 17-year-olds within their system had their identities stolen. That is a highly specific age range, and experts believe the percentage is actually much higher due to the numbers of children whose identities are stolen before they turn sixteen.
Congress has tried to enact federal legislation that would help correct problems, if not actually prevent them. They passed a bill some time ago that requires caseworkers to conduct credit checks on youth in their caseload who are between the ages of 16 and 18, with the goal of rooting out suspicious activity and clearing their records before they age out.
The problem is multi-fold: caseworkers are already overburdened with their growing caseloads, and even if an issue was uncovered, too many kids age out of the system before it can be resolved. Even worse, there’s no way of tracking back and discovering who has access to the child’s stolen personal identifiable information, meaning even if the child’s name and credit restored, there’s nothing stopping that person from reopening accounts or making new purchases.
In the foster care system, it is fundamental that protection measures begin at an early age, and it starts with limiting the access to children’s information, especially to those who do not need it. For things like school enrollment, health care access, and welfare assistance, a separate identification number that only corresponds to the child’s temporary status as a foster child would prevent at least some of the access to their more permanent information, such as their Social Security numbers. Early detection through ongoing credit monitoring would also help investigators discover where in the chain the link became broken; it might also help deter identity theft in cases where the perpetrator knew they might be more easily identified.
Unfortunately, these steps would only reduce the risk, not eliminate the threat altogether. That’s why it’s important to monitor account activity and provide avenues that will help all children—regardless of their status within their families—resolve identity theft in a timely way.
If you think you may be a victim of identity theft, contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App.