A couple of years ago, a shocking case of abuse came to light. In what is now known as the “Tacony dungeon” case, four Social Security disability beneficiaries with mental disabilities were found imprisoned in a filthy basement. Their captors allegedly kept them there to steal their SSD benefits, which was apparently accomplished through the simple expedient of signing up as their victims’ “representative payees.”
Representative payees are designated by the Social Security Administration to manage disability or retirement benefits on behalf of people who aren’t legally capable of doing so themselves due to a cognitive or mental disability. According to the SSA they’re typically family members or close friends, but they need not be the legal guardian or custodian of the beneficiary. Of course, they should never be criminals but, until recently, there were few effective ways to prevent that.
Shockingly, it became clear that the Tacony dungeon tragedy might easily have been prevented if the Social Security Administration had performed a simple background check on the lead defendant before she was authorized as a representative payee. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, that defendant had previously been convicted of having locked her sister’s boyfriend in a closet and allowed him to starve to death.
That revelation prompted the SSA to run a pilot program in which background checks would be performed on everyone applying to be a representative payee. Ideally, this would keep people with prior convictions for offenses like identity theft, government assistance fraud or human trafficking from obtaining the credentials.
The pilot program is now being extended nationwide. The SSA calls it a success, but it’s not an unqualified one. The Social Security Administration isn’t a law enforcement agency, so employees aren’t given access to the FBI’s databases. Instead, screeners must rely on third-party databases and public records, which often don’t have all the needed information.
Still, SSA analysts were able to screen 34,850 applicants, 285 of whom had red flags in their backgrounds that may have disqualified them from being representative payees.
Here in Michigan, few Social Security beneficiaries could afford the loss of even a small portion of their benefits. We need to take all reasonable steps to prevent criminals from preying on vulnerable people. The background checks are a positive step, but the Social Security Administration must be given the tools it needs to run them effectively.
Source: Philadelphia Daily News, “Social Security expands background checks,” Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, March 3, 2014