A new state law allows foster care programs to keep children in the system until they are 21, and provides stipends and education opportunities.Danielle McMahan lived in five foster homes but didn’t get much training on how to make it on her own. So when she turned 18 almost three years ago and “aged out” of foster care, she nearly fell flat on her face.
“It didn’t come easy,” she said. “I grew up always having someone else there. It was hard to be alone. Going out and paying bills, I didn’t know to do it. I didn’t know how to set up the electric service.”
Booting 18-year-olds out of the house to live on their own has always been somewhat of a sink-or-swim proposition. Most have few career job skills, haven’t had to make major decisions on their own and aren’t quite ready for real life.
It’s riskier for foster children, who sometimes are bounced around from home to home. Often, they graduate high school a year or two behind and are only juniors or sophomores when they turn 18.
Foster care advocates have complained for years that the state ill-prepares foster children to stand on their own when they reach 18. This year, Florida legislators paid attention.
The Legislature passed a law that allows for foster care programs to keep kids in the system until they are 21. The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, provides stipends and opportunities to train and educate and even send some to college.
Known as the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act, the bill was passed 38-0 by the Florida Senate and the House by a 116-1 vote last week. The bill needs only the governor’s signature, which is likely to happen this week.
Detert is a Republican senator from Sarasota who has championed foster care issues over her career in public service.
Kimberly Hernandez, spokeswoman for the Florida State Foster/Adoptive Association and president of the Hillsborough County Foster Parent Association, said the legislation will give older foster kids a much-needed and long-awaited safety net.
“If a child turns 18 in foster care, and they are not ready to leave, they are not ready to be on their own, this gives them the opportunity to stay in the program,” Hernandez said.
The new law will have the most affect on teens who turn 18 while still in high school, Hernandez said.
“A child not out of high school who moves out often doesn’t know how to manage money,” she said. “They stop going to school because there is no one there to keep boundaries and they end up not getting their diploma because they don’t have the support or life experience.”
According to an analysis of the bill, many foster children who haven’t been adopted or returned to their biological families by the time they reach 18 “experience numerous difficulties in their attempts to achieve self-sufficiency.”
They are less likely to earn a high school diploma and less likely to go to college.
“They suffer more from mental health problems, have a higher rate of involvement with the criminal justice system and are more likely to have difficulty achieving financial independence,” the analysis says. “These young adults have a higher need for public assistance and are more likely to experience housing instability, including homelessness.”
Thousands of teens age out of the state dependency care system each when they turn 18, the analysis says, and are no longer eligible for help. Since 2009, nearly 5,000 18-year-olds have aged out of the system.
The new law requires the state Department of Children and Families and other agencies develop “a transition plan for young adults in extended foster care and also requires continuation of case management, service delivery, and judicial review for such young adults.”
The bill sets a room-and-board rate for foster parents and provides for cost-of-living increases and a supplemental stipend. Foster teens attending colleges and trade schools will get financial assistance under the bill if they keep up their grades.
There is no additional cost in implementing the changes because the transitional programs in place now will be restructured, the analysis says.
The new law also gives a break to 18-year-olds who strike out on their own and can’t make it. They will be eligible to get back into the foster system to receive stipends and tuition.
They can return to their former foster homes, if foster parents agree, or they can live in a group foster home, Hernandez said. Currently, 60 percent of foster teens live in group homes, she said, “and that’s not ideal.”
“We need more teen foster homes,” she said. “We want every child to live in a family home.”
The need for more teen foster homes will be greater with this legislation, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida Children First.
“This is a call to the community that we need more foster families,” she said, mainly because foster parents now will be teaching teenagers independent living skills as part of the restructuring of the program, a duty previously done by state-paid counselors.
“This is a great thing,” Rosenberg said. “We’ve been working on this legislation for three years. It has been a priority for our organization to work with young people aging out of care.
“Many have not been able to get the support they needed under the existing programs,” she said, “and this provides a wealth of opportunities for them.”
The new law would have helped McMahan.
She was placed in foster care at 13 and spent the next five years bouncing into and out of five foster homes, a few times because of clashes with foster parents.
“I wasn’t really defiant,” she said. “I didn’t get bad grades or get into trouble. We just clashed. It’s hard to have any independence being in the system.”
Times were tough when she aged out, McMahan said, but the resilient teenager willed herself to succeed where many of her fellow foster teens did not. She worked part-time, took community college classes and rented a small, rundown apartment in Drew Park so she could be close to school.
She now works at Macy’s and will finish classes at Hillsborough Community College this summer. She has applied to two four-year universities and hopes to get into the communications field. She’s part of the Florida Youth Shine, an advocacy group made up of current and former foster care youths, who pushed for the recently passed independent living act.
The new law would have made it easier for her, with stipends and training on how to be a responsible adult, she said. But now, others will benefit, she said, though making mistakes when you’re just starting out is part growing up.
“When you age out, you want to do your own thing,” she said. “Everyone wants to do that. You have to fail couple of times, but that’s how you learn in life.”