The Social Security Administration improperly paid children in juvenile detention facilities $1.7 million, according to a new audit.
The inspector general for the agency found that just four states accounted for the improper disability payments. The estimate for fraudulent payments was "conservative" since the audit did not compile all data from the four states reviewed, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Texas.
"SSA issued about $1.7 million in improper SSI payments on behalf of 547 juveniles confined in correctional facilities in [four] States," the inspector general said. "While SSA had established overpayments for 274 of these juveniles, we identified 273 instances where SSA was unaware of all or part of the confinement period. We determined that 158 of these juveniles were confined for 6 months or longer without SSA's knowledge."
Federal law requires payments on behalf of minors to be discontinued for a full calendar year if the minor is admitted to a correctional facility.
The inspector general reported payments were still being made to 229 minors while they were in detention centers when the audit was conducted. The $1.7 million improper payments were issued in 2016.
"Our findings are conservative because we did not receive data on all confined juveniles in all four States," the inspector general said.
Disability payments for children under age 15 are typically made to a representative payee, such as a parent or guardian who administers the payments on their behalf. Some juveniles between the ages of 15 and 17 may receive payments directly, though they typically have a representative payee as well.
In one case, payments continued to go out for a payee after the minor had been in a juvenile correction facility for nearly three years.
"One payee received over $24,000 in improper SSI payments while the juvenile was confined for 34 months," the inspector general said. "During confinement, the payee completed two redeterminations with SSA and falsely stated the juvenile was living in a private residence and had not been confined in a correctional facility for a calendar month."
In most cases cited in the audit, the representative payee lied to the government in order to continue receiving payments for the incarcerated child.
One individual who received $9,500 in improper disability payments had another minor pose as their child when talking to authorities in order to keep receiving the payments.
Other cases included $18,000 in fraudulent payments for a juvenile confined for over two years, and $17,000 for a minor confined for 23 months.
The inspector general said the federal government needs more communication and agreements to share data with state juvenile correction facilities.
"Although SSA has numerous memorandums of understanding (MOU) with correctional facilities to obtain information on incarcerated adults, it did not obtain such information on all confined juveniles," the inspector general said. "For example, one State did not have MOUs with juvenile facilities, one State had an MOU with only one county, and two States provided data on juveniles confined in State correctional facilities but not at local juvenile facilities Statewide."
"Without MOUs, SSA must rely on other sources, such as self-reporting by juveniles' representative payees (for example, parent, legal guardian, relative, social agency, or institution)," the inspector general added. "Unless such individuals notify SSA, it may continue making monthly SSI payments while the juvenile is confined, thus creating overpayments."