Senate panel readies revamp of foster youth program

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The Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs will take up a committee bill that would give foster parents more decision-making power and give youths the option of staying in state care until age 21.

The proposal is spearheaded by Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican who sponsored the bill that created Florida’s original Road to Independence program in 2002, and will be heard for the first time next week.

Alan Abramowitz, director of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem program, calls SB 164 the “normalcy” bill because it gives kids in the system a better chance at normal family life. He said the first goal of the child welfare system in to reunify families, with adoption as a second choice.

“It is definitely not a success when a child ages out of foster care,” Abramowitz said.

According to the Children’s Home Society, 33 percent of youths aging out of foster care will be homeless within three years, and 25 percent of the males will end up in jail or prison. Sixty percent will have a child within four years.

Florida is considered a trailblazer for its transition programs for youths aging out of state care, but Detert said that after 10 years, those programs could use an overhaul. The Road to Independence program provides services and financial help to older foster children and those who leave state care at 18.

She invited members of Florida Youth SHINE, the advocacy group for young people who have been in foster care, to advise the Senate panel on the independent living program. 

“It’s not hands-on enough,” said FYS vice president Andrea Cowart. “You’re trying to teach them how to swim when they’re already drowning.”

Abramowitz said part of the problem is that state officials are too cautious about allowing foster youths to live normal lives. He said he’s even been in staff discussions over whether a young man in state care could go on a date.

“What we’ve changed it to is giving the caregiver, the person who’s parenting them and cares about them and actually knows the child, not bureaucrats in the back room with lawyers – the actual person that we’ve said are licensed and can have the child 24 hours a day and can make all the decisions – that that person can make normalcy decisions,” Abramowitz said.

Trudy Petkovich, president of the Florida State Foster-and-Adoptive Parent Association, has fostered 300 children and has three adoptive daughters with special needs. But while she could take her own children to look at colleges, she said, she wasn’t allowed to do that for her foster children.

“A system should not be raising children,” Petkovich told the Senate committee earlier this month. “We want our foster parents to be their parents…The buck stops with the parents.”

Petkovich said the goal of the committee bill should be that a child’s first placement is his or her last placement.

The bill would put in state law the right of all children in foster care to engage in normal childhood activities. It establishes a “reasonable and prudent parent” standard for caregivers in deciding whether to allow a child in foster care to participate in extracurricular activities – and protects them from liability.

“You don’t learn life skills from a class,” said Jane Soltis, Vice President of Programs for Eckerd Family Foundation, who supports the bill. “You learn them from a parent.”

The committee bill would also extend the independent living program to age 21 for teens who choose not to age out at 18. Detert said that could be done at no additional cost. The bill has been referred to four committees, including two appropriations panels.

The House companion, HB 215, is sponsored by Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.