SALT LAKE CITY — Jode Littlepage has spent years digging out of the mess foster parents in California had made of her credit.
They used her Social Security number to apply for credit cards and open bank accounts. When she left the foster care system, she was burdened with thousands of dollars of debt and serious damage to her credit history.
"Going into college, it was very difficult to apply for housing, even get a bank account because I had all of these negative things on my credit," said Littlepage, who mentors Utah youths in foster care through a program in the Department of Workforce Services.
Given her personal experiences and numerous instances she has counseled Utah youths who have encountered financial manipulation on the part of birth and foster families, Littlepage welcomes a new federal law that requires states to run credit checks on older foster children to help resolve cases of identity theft.
President Barack Obama signed the Foster Youth Financial Security Act into law on Sept. 30.
The new law ensures that foster children 16 and older receive free credit checks before leaving state foster care systems and that they are given assistance in clearing any inaccuracies that come to light.
As many as 30 percent of foster children might be victims of identity theft, based on reviews of the credit reports of foster children, The Associated Press reports. Most do not recognize that their identities have been stolen until they grow up and apply for credit.
Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., co-sponsor of the legislation, said foster children "are already behind the eight ball," he said.
"They're already dealing with psychological and emotional problems because of abuse and neglect. It's outrageous that they would be further victimized by identity theft and find out about it just when they're trying to establish themselves with a car loan, apartment or job."
In general, children are more at risk of identity theft than adults, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found. Their review of records of 42,000 children found more than 10 percent showed signs of identity theft. Meanwhile, the federal government estimates that 4 percent of adults are victims of identity theft.
The thieves are often birth families, who may view a child's Social Security number as a means to put food on the table, pay rent or feed an addiction.
Littlepage, who was abandoned as an infant and spent about 16 years in foster care before entering college early, said it took six years to dig out of the mess created by the adults the state of California had trusted to care for her.
"You think it would be a stranger or someone in the agency using numbers that way. It's really more foster and biological families. Either way, it's no good," she said.
She remains vigilant about checking her credit each year and advising the youths she mentors to pay attention to their personal finances.
Young people in foster care are subject to other forms of financial manipulation, she said. If a child in foster care gets a job, scholarship or educational grant, their birth family may pressure them for money. She has also counseled foster children whose foster parents have made financial demands of them such as helping with household expenses once they have secured jobs.
"It's out there. It's more prominent than people want to believe. It's not strangers trying to steal from these kids, it's foster parents and biological families," Littlepage said.
A report by the University of San Diego School of Law's Child Advocacy Institute says a wide array of people have access to a foster child's Social Security number and other personal information, including parents, grandparents, family members, foster parents, social workers and group home personnel.
"Too often, this access is abused for everything from opening credit cards to fraudulently providing identification for criminal matters. Many foster youth do not learn that their identities have been stolen and their credit destroyed until they have exited care and apply for credit," the report said.
The 2011 report, "The Fleecing of Foster Children: How We Confiscate their Assets and Undermine Their Financial Security," says identity theft can have devastating consequences.
"Former foster youth may face problems finding safe and adequate housing; they may be denied loans for cars and other larger necessities, and they may be denied financial aid and the opportunity to attend college, all as a result of identity theft that occurred while they were in foster care."
Contributing: Associated Press