Can you imagine how a small group of excellent investigators could traverse the state of North Carolina, from the mountains to the coast, interview nearly 2,000 disabled people where they live, make sure they are safe and that they know their rights, review mounds of financial records, and get help if people are being harmed?

Meet Disability Rights NC’s Representative Payee Team. They have been doing this work since 2018.

What is a representative payee?

If you have never heard of a representative payee, you aren’t alone. Most people don’t know this term – unless you are a representative payee yourself, or work at the Social Security Administration (SSA). Let’s break it down. Sometimes people with disabilities receive SSA benefits. They are called beneficiaries. If they aren’t able to manage their own money, SSA will assign a person or an organization to manage their benefits for them. The person or organization who manages another person’s SSA benefits is called the representative payee, or rep payee for short.

DRNC’s dedicated team of six full-time investigators and their supervising investigator partner with the SSA to oversee how representative payees across the state are managing these benefits.

This work began in 2018 after numerous shocking national media accounts of rep payees abusing, exploiting, and neglecting beneficiaries. Congress took action and added the Protection and Advocacy (“P&A”) system into the oversight of beneficiaries. Congress specifically chose the country’s P&As because of our expertise in working with and advocating for disabled children and adults, and in monitoring and investigating settings where people with disabilities live, work, play and learn.

To do this work, DRNC’s rep payee team had to pass rigorous security clearance requirements and in-depth SSA training. The requirements are rigorous, because the investigations are very specific, and because protecting confidential client information is one of our team’s highest priorities.

What does the representative payee team do?

The rep payee team visits all the places that disabled people may live, including:

  • Houses or apartments in the community,
  • Group homes
  • Institutions such as adult care homes, nursing facilities, and facilities for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities
  • State-operated institutions

In every review, DRNC talks with the beneficiary. If there is a legal guardian, we will speak with them as well. In some cases, such as with children, we will talk with several others to make sure the child or person is safe. That might involve speaking with school staff, church staff, a neighbor, or an extended family member.

Investigators also interview the payee and examine the financial records SSA requires us to review. When we find issues related to the financial review, we report these to SSA and issue a Corrective Action Plan.

Rep Payee reviews can take a few days, and sometimes take much longer.

How does DRNC know which representative payees to review?

Each year, the SSA assigns DRNC (and all the country’s P&A programs) specific representative payees they want our team to investigate. Sometimes the review is of an individual who is managing SSA funds for a family member or someone else. Other times the review involves an organization that serves as a rep payee – like a nursing facility or group home – for dozens, and even hundreds of people. In those cases, SSA assigns us up to 25 beneficiaries whose records they want DRNC to review.

At a recent DRNC staff meeting, the team’s supervising investigator, Gabby Bush, explained the breadth of the information each team member investigates,  noting that these reviews span “million-dollar budgets to 70-dollar budgets.”

The SSA also invites DRNC to report rep payees we have concerns about – either from complaints made to our agency, from media coverage, or concerns from partner agencies. If SSA accepts the nomination, they will assign that case to our team for review.

Can DRNC’s rep payee team help with other issues?

Our primary task is making sure rep payees are managing a beneficiary’s money responsibly. But we also use our time in the field to help people with disabilities learn about other services, supports, and opportunities they might want.

The team has a wealth of knowledge and backgrounds including social work, pastoral work, victims’ advocacy, social services, and Social Security benefits and overpayments. We rely on each other to come up with creative ideas to help people. We also lean on the broader DRNC team’s expertise as well.

As you might imagine, the breadth of the rep payee team’s work gives DRNC the unique ability to identify systemic issues in the state, serving as a “canary in the coal mine,” so to speak. When this team begins to see issues bubbling up in certain geographic areas, or across particular types of organizations, we alert DRNC’s other teams to those issues. We might raise these concerns with our policy team, our litigation team, or our investigations and monitoring team so they can focus on addressing the system-wide issues. At the same time, we are always mindful to diligently protect the confidential information of the beneficiaries.

Since we began this work, DRNC’s rep payee investigations have produced many important outcomes, including:

  • Requiring hundreds of rep payees to provide written Corrective Action Plans;
  • Notifying numerous law enforcement, social service, and regulatory agencies of issues outside the scope of SSA’s authority, like the physical or emotional safety of people with disabilities;
  • Helping people to know and understand their rights in the community and in facilities, be empowered to self-advocate, access services they didn’t know existed, access DRNC’s representation in matters outside the scope of SSA’s authority, regain their own guardianship and have their representative payee removed, and register to vote, to name just a few.

How has COVID-19 impacted the Rep Payee team’s work?

This is rewarding and difficult, time-consuming work. And it has continued even during the unrelenting pandemic, which severely disrupted the team’s ability to work on cases in institutional settings. During one assignment, four of the six beneficiaries SSA asked us to interview died from COVID-19 before we could talk with them.

As we have frequently noted, COVID-19 disproportionately affected residents in congregate care settings. Sadly, because North Carolina still relies so heavily on the institutionalization of people with disabilities, and because most of them are SSA beneficiaries, many of our clients were brutally impacted by COVID-19. As the virus engulfed these facilities, payees often became too overwhelmed and saddened to speak with us for very long. Some of the beneficiaries did not want to leave their room for a telephone call. They feared that if they left their room, they would increase their risk of exposure. Our team worried about the risks as well.

There were significant staffing shortages in these facilities. As time passed, we observed beneficiaries experiencing neglect and payees struggling to complete their work. Additionally, many new payees were brought in as new hires with little to no transition from previous management. Unfortunately, pandemic conditions in facilities have only minimally improved. Many people living in these facilities continue to be isolated from friends, family, and their communities. Fears and anxieties continue, and more people will get sick and die from COVID-19.

At the start of the pandemic, Social Security put out a “stop work order” which disrupted our program for weeks. During that time, the team made calls to prior beneficiaries and payees to see if they needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), help with understanding the Economic Impact Payments (EIP) and their effect on SSI/SSDI benefits, and offer other information. SSA later reversed course and allowed the P&As to resume work, but only on a limited and remote status.

Since that time, SSA has released emergency protocols and our team is now allowed to resume field work. We are excited to get back out into the community and meet with beneficiaries, their payees and others.

Need help?

Do you have concerns about a rep payee? We want to hear from you. Contact DRNC and tell us about your concerns. We may decide that this is a payee we want to “nominate” to SSA in hopes SSA will ask us to review that payee.

Learn about the cases of abuse leading to the formation of rep payee teams in the US

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