Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Identity Theft & Kids Aging Out of Foster Care

I recently attended the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) Conference.  At the conference, I heard in a couple of different breakout sessions about one particular problem that is facing foster kids who have aged out of the system or are about to do so.  That is the problem of identity theft.  Studies show that 1/2 of the kids in foster care in California are victims of identity theft.  Estimates are that fewer Nebraska foster care kids are victims, but any number other than zero is too many.  Making the problem even worse is that most of these kids don't discover the identity theft until they have already aged out of the system and are without support and assistance with cleaning up the problem.

While in foster care, kids' personal information, including date of birth and social security number, passes through an untold number of hands.  HHS/DSS caseworkers and supervisors, attorneys, court personnel, counselors and therapists, medical professionals, and others all come into contact with the children's files.  In addition, kinship placements, foster families, group home staff, and immediate family all get copies of the children's files.  When children's identifying information passes through so many people's hands, as well as is retained by the child's biological family, it's really not surprising that when these kids age out, they often find out that they are victims of identity theft.

So what can we do about it?  Well for one thing, we can use something other than the children's social security number as an identifier.  All students in Nebraska are assigned a student identification number.  This is a system, already in place, that could be expanded and used to identify kids in the child welfare system as well.  This would make it slightly more difficult for the identities of children to be compromised.

In addition, we can do credit checks of foster care kids when they are 16 years old, so that identity theft & credit problems can be cleaned up before they age out of the system.  Many states have already enacted legislation mandating that their states' HHS/DSS do this as part of the process of educating and preparing those kids who are about to age out of the system.  Nebraska could certainly use those states' laws as a model for legislation here.  HHS could begin doing these credit checks as part of the process of preparing foster care kids to age out, even without legislation in place.  Guardians ad litem can and should assist in this process.

Moreover, kids who are about to age out of the system need to be educated so that they can protect themselves against others taking advantage of them once they do age out.  This education needs to be very practical and pragmatic.  Topics such as how you check your credit reports, what are the implications of cosigning or taking out a loan for someone else, etc. need to be covered.  Guardians ad litem need to ensure that these kids are getting the information that they need on this front.

This is something that cannot wait.  We need to begin taking these steps immediately to protect these children from further identity theft, and to help them clean up the cases of identity theft that have already occurred.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rural Law Practice and My Home State of South Dakota

I'm new to Nebraska, and new to rural practice.  When I lived in South Dakota, I practiced law from Rapid City, and ventured to other, smaller towns for the occasional case.  In Nebraska, I live and practice in a much more rural setting.  Holdrege is a town of about 5,000 people, set in a county of about 10,000 people.  However, many of my cases come out of the surrounding counties, the county seats of which are much smaller.

When I was a law student, I distinctly remember the Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court, David Gilbertson speaking to law students about the absence of attorneys in many rural communities and the problems this was creating in the administration of justice.  I remember thinking that rural practice could be an excellent opportunity, but not having a clue as to how one would find out about rural communities in need of attorneys.

Well, the South Dakota State Bar Association has taken up the challenge of studying the decline of rural law practice through its recent announcement of the creation of the Rural Practice Task Force (see page 2 of the State Bar Newsletter).  This development has been widely reported on, both within South Dakota (see the Argus Leader's coverage), as well as more widespread national coverage (see the Wall Street Journal Law Blog's coverage, see this post from the Rural Lawyer blog, and see this post from My Shingle).

So why am I posting on this topic on a blog devoted to Nebraska legal issues?  Because the state of Nebraska faces similar challenges.  In my short time thus far practicing law in Nebraska, I have already heard from one judge and multiple attorneys about the need for attorneys in certain rural communities, as well as the gratitude and relief that some new attorneys are moving to more rural communities to begin their careers.

What should be done to address the problem of 'justice denied' in rural communities?  I'm not exactly sure, but I think that the task force created by the South Dakota State Bar is an excellent first step.  I, for one, will be following the task force's activity to see what they discover.