During this holiday season, Americans will spend millions using consumer credit. While many social critics rail against consumer debt as a thorn in the side of the American middle class, the use of credit cards enables many Americans to purchase gifts for their loved ones.
Many former foster youth in California will never have the opportunity to participate in this tradition of holiday giving. Importantly, many will be denied credit to purchase the essential goods and services needed for a stable and successful financial future.
Former foster youths, many of whom lack financial support from parents and relatives, are deprived of access to consumer credit because of identity theft and fraud.
A clean credit history is the first step toward financial stability and opportunity. For many former foster youth, the ingredients for success, such as attending college or a trade school, buying a car, renting an apartment, or even getting a job, have been foreclosed.
Because minors cannot legally take on debt, no person under the age of 18 should have negative items in his or her credit history. Unfortunately, because the personal information of foster youth is circulated widely, credit accounts are sometimes opened fraudulently in their names for the nefarious financial gain of others.
A pilot project in Los Angeles County to check and clear the credit history of children in its foster care found that 5 percent of foster youth had been victims of identity theft and fraud.
On average, these accounts had been opened when the children were 14 years old.
In 2006, California law established a requirement that county welfare agencies request credit reports for every child in foster care over the age of 16 and connect youth to services that address fraudulent activity. However, implementation of this law was postponed year after year because of budgetary concerns.
California's leaders determined that we could not afford to protect our most vulnerable children from identify theft. Haven't these abused and neglected children had enough taken from them?
The pilot project conducted in Los Angeles concluded that the process for checking and clearing the credit reports of foster youth should be an automated batch process conducted on a statewide basis.
It would be unworkable for county welfare departments to submit individual requests for youth in care pursuant to the free annual disclosure provision in federal law (www.annualcreditreport.com) because the automated system was designed for adults.
The website does not provide access to credit reports for minors whose identity has been stolen and credit obtained fraudulently.
As of 2012, federal law requires states to submit a plan for requesting and addressing foster youth credit reports to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Yet, California still has not implemented a workable plan to discover and resolve fraudulent credit issues facing foster youth.
Our leaders must prioritize this issue and implement an effective solution. We cannot let stolen identities and bad credit add to the myriad challenges facing foster youth as they transition to adulthood.
Susan Thomaes is a graduate student at UC Berkeley obtaining a master's in social work and she is a foster youth advocate working as an intern with transition age youth at Bay Area Youth Centers.