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Report Finds Little Fraud in Income Program for Disabled

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Washington

In the face of allegations that parents are "coaching'' their children to behave in certain ways in school and at home to make them eligible for federal funds intended for disabled poor children, a recent report by the Social Security Administration has concluded that there is little evidence that such manipulation is widespread.

Several national news reports have alleged that some parents have told their children to act up in school, do poorly on tests, fail classes, and fake symptoms of various behavioral disabilities during medical examinations used to help determine eligibility for the $4.3 billion Supplemental Security Income program for children.

Poor children found to have a disability can receive up to $446 a month through the program. Neither the law nor the regulations guiding the program require that the cash stipends, sent to the parents, be used to treat the children's disabilities. News reports have alleged that some families have used the money to buy such items as cars and television sets.

The S.S.A.'s report analyzed 617 cases, involving children ages 5 to 18 whose parents had applied for benefits in the fall of 1992. The applicant children, who hail from multiple regions, all were reported to exhibit evidence of behavioral or learning deficits.

The S.S.A. found evidence of "possible'' coaching in only 13 of the cases studied, and only three of those 13 children had been granted benefits.

About 20 percent of the 770,000 children who receive benefits have a mental impairment other than retardation, an S.S.A. spokesman said.

A Difficult Determination

At a hearing held in May by the Senate appropriations subcommittee that allocates funds to the Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services departments, Michael F. Mangano, a deputy inspector general at H.H.S., noted in his testimony the "extreme difficulty our employees have in making these decisions'' on whether a child is eligible for S.S.I. payments.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the agency's regulations were illegal because they required children applying for disability payments to meet a stricter standard than adults applying for such benefits.

As a result, the agency developed rules in 1991 that call for an individual assessment of a child, in certain cases, to determine what impact the child's impairment has on his ability to perform "age appropriate'' activities.

The activities range from learning, communicating, and performing in school to interacting "appropriately'' with family members and peers, S.S.A. officials testified. Since the adoption of the new rules, participation in the program has mushroomed.

Some observers have criticized the criteria for being overly broad.

"This is a prime example of a well-intentioned program run amok,'' Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said at the hearing.

Mr. Byrd read a letter sent to him by a West Virginia teacher describing students who deliberately fail classes and behave disruptively in order to qualify for benefits.

The Inspector General's office plans to issue its own report on the child disability program in September, Mr. Mangano said.

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