Court orders aid resumed to former foster child despite some bad grades
A state appeals court ruled that the DCF was wrong to cast a former foster child out of a financial aid program.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
What makes a good student? And does a good student have to be good all the time?
Such questions might prove challenging even when they involve children and young adults who go home to moms and dads and tidy homes in affluent neighborhoods. But what if the youth had been in foster care?
In a ruling that could have significant implications for former foster children throughout Florida, a Miami appeals court last week said that a young adult who “aged out” of foster care need not have pulled good grades and attended faithfully all year in order to qualify for state-funded financial aid that is contingent upon successful academic achievement. Redeeming herself after a short educational setback may have been enough.
The case involves a 20-year-old woman — and her 2-year-old daughter — who entered state care six years ago due to her parents’ substance abuse and neglect. When she left foster care in November 2009 at age 18, the girl earned a Road to Independence scholarship and stipend from the state, intended to put a roof over her head and food in the pantry while she continued her education. Such scholarships are, generally, the only financial assistance ex-foster kids receive after age 18.
But the young woman, who is not being named to protect her privacy, ran into a rough patch while she was finishing a high school program for pregnant teens and attending Miami Dade College. “She attributed her academic problems to her infant daughter’s recurring illnesses and the difficulties of obtaining transportation and day care,” said the opinion from the state Third District Court of Appeal in Miami.
On the advice of both her case manager and her court-appointed guardian-ad-litem, the young woman withdrew from Miami Dade and enrolled in Beauty Schools of America, a vocational program in Homestead which was near her home and offered greater child care options. Through October 2010, the woman had maintained a “B” average in the program, records showed.
That same month, though, the private Our Kids foster care agency pulled her scholarship and stipend, arguing her spotty attendance and poor grades at Miami Dade rendered her ineligible for the assistance. Fran Allegra, Our Kids’ executive director, said the young woman continued to receive aid from the state while her appeal proceeded. In all, she has received a total of $36,424 from the state since her 18th birthday.
Professor Kele Stewart of the University of Miami’s Children & Youth Law Clinic, who is representing the woman, said the decision to drop her client from the program shows the callousness child welfare administrators often display toward foster children, many of whom drop out of school and would be ineligible for the program, to begin with. Nationwide, foster children get poorer grades, are held back and fail to graduate at significantly higher rates than children who grow up with their parents.
“We are their parents. The state is their parents,” Stewart said. “We have a responsibility, and, really, the state does not live up to its responsibility even before these children turn 18.”
Under the Road to Independence law, signed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002, a young adult must “maintain appropriate progress” as outlined by their high school, college or vocational program in order to have his or her stipend renewed each year. But the law also adds: “If the young adult’s progress is insufficient to renew the award at any time during the eligibility period, the young adult may restore eligibility by improving his or her progress to the required level.” Young adults may remain in the program until age 23.
By terminating the woman from the program, the appeals court wrote, child welfare administrators imposed a more stringent set of requirements upon [her] than the statute actually requires.”