Foster youth's stolen IDs getting more attention
April 30, 2011/ Associated Press
DENVER (AP) — Dominic McGee was born to a mother addicted to drugs and taken away from her to live in a series of five foster homes where authorities assumed he'd be safe. Instead, he says he was subjected to physical and sexual abuse and even threatened with castration as a form of discipline.
He's finally on his own at 21 but recently learned that he's got an atrocious credit history. While he was still in foster care in 2005, someone used his identity to try to open a mortgage. He also ended up saddled with medical and utility bills he says he's not responsible for.
The fact that foster children are sometimes shuffled from home to home, with their personal information passing through different hands, makes it a recipe for identity theft, child advocates say. Once they turn 18 and are ready to live on their own, many foster youth discover that they have car loans, unpaid bills or mortgages in their names. Debts and bad credit can prevent them from renting an apartment, getting college financial aid, or opening a bank account. Finding culprits can be nearly impossible.
A Colorado law taking effect this summer seeks to prevent that. It directs local courts that deal with foster youth to make sure children between 16 and 18 obtain a free credit report. If there's a problem, cases would be referred to government agencies or nonprofits that can help clean up credit records.
Only a couple of other states have such laws, but it's an issue gaining national attention. U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., is sponsoring legislation to require foster-care agencies to do annual credit reviews of children in their care and attempt to clean up any credit problems before youth leave the system.
"We have a situation here where we have a lot of nice kids who can't get out and live their lives. They have major black marks," said Jay Foley, executive director of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center, based in San Diego.
California enacted a law like Colorado's five years ago and Connecticut did so last year. A similar proposal failed in Illinois last year.
Democratic Sen. Linda Newell, who sponsored the Colorado legislation signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, said the idea for the bill came from foster children who told her identity theft was a big roadblock in their lives.
"When I learned about it I thought, 'Really? Are you kidding me?'" Newell said. "Because these are kids who got in (the foster care system) because they've been abused and neglected and for someone to take advantage of somebody so fragile who has already been victimized, they're victimized all over again."
McGee acknowledges that he made some bad choices as a teen, like opening up credit card accounts that he's been unable to pay. Combined with the other bills opened in his name without his knowledge, it could take years for him to clear up his credit record.
"I honestly think that it should be to the point where kids who were in foster care, and even if they did screw up their own credit, it should be erased," he said at a United Way office that's trying to help with that process.
For now, he lives in an apartment through a Colorado program that helps homeless youth. But getting him other housing, even with a state subsidy, will be a challenge, said Kippi Clausen, director of population based strategies at the Mile High United Way.
"Even though the state is guaranteeing paying rent, because his credit report has come up with all these big dings, it will be almost impossible for him to get into housing," Clausen said.
Figures on how prevalent identity theft is among foster children are difficult to find. A March report titled, "The Fleecing of Foster Children," written by First Star, a national nonprofit which advocates for abused children, and the University of San Diego School of Law's Children's Advocacy Institute, cited identity theft as a problem but did not include statistics.
"And the reason for that is it's a problem that's just recently coming to light," said Melanie Delgado, a staff attorney at the Children's Advocacy Institute. Delgado said that while conducting research for the report, she came across figures listing the prevalence of identity theft among foster children as high as 50 percent.
More than 460,000 U.S. children are in foster care at any given time, according to federal figures.
Victoria Lynch will be watching the new Colorado law closely. A former foster child now in college, the 21-year-old discovered recently that someone used her Social Security Number to get a job at a construction company. Lynch said she fears her future could be dogged by what happened.
"I'm just like, dang, whenever I do decide and go purchase my first car, or purchase my first house, they're going to be like, 'Nuh-uh. It ain't gonna happen,'" Lynch said.
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