Detert foster care bill passes
Turning 18 was hardly a celebration for Robert Stalker.
Having spent 10 years bouncing among foster homes and assisted living programs, Stalker knew turning 18 meant he’d be forced out on his own with no one to help him prepare of college or keep him on track.
“I wasn’t sure what to do,” said Stalker, who is now 21 and lives in Sarasota. “There are a lot of foster care kids I know who aren’t ready to live independently when they are 18. They just need more time.”
Stalker was among those former and current foster children applauding the Florida Legislature on Wednesday for passing a bill to allow children in foster care to remain in the system until they are 21. Previously, they were forced out at 18, even when they were still in high school, as is the case for 70 percent, according to foster care advocates.
“When a kid is 18 years old, they don’t have to leave their placement anymore,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First, which advocates on the behalf of foster children. “They can stay right in the foster home they’re in just like any other 18 year old that is still in high school.”
As important, Spudeas said youths who do chose to leave foster care at 18 can still come back, much like non-foster children would be able to return to their homes.
“Let’s let them come back when they need the help,” Spudeas said.
State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the bill is the most important she’s ever sponsored. She said foster children already deal with enough stress from being in the foster system; the last thing they need is uncertainty about where they are going once they turn 18.
“You’re not going to be successful if you were abused as a kid, put in foster care, bounced from house to house and then put out on the street at your 18th birthday,” Detert said. “We can do better.”
There are more than 5,200 children between ages 13 and 17 in the state’s foster care system, according to Florida Senate researchers. And over 1,100 children “age out” of the foster system in Florida every year.
Last week, the Senate passed the bill and renamed it the “Sen. Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act.” On Wedneday, after an unexpected delay, the bill passed the House 116-1 and now heads to Gov. Rick Scott.
Earlier in the day, Detert’s bill appeared to be in big trouble in the House. To protest the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid, House Democrats voted to force Republicans to read every bill in its entirety. That bill provoked House leaders to table Detert’s bill in the House because of how long it would have taken to read her 54-page bill rewriting major parts of the state’s foster care system rules.
David Wilkins, head of the Department of Children and Families, said the bill will “change the lives of countless youth who age out of foster care.”
“With this legislation, which is truly the voice of our young people, our youth will have the same opportunity as our own children to be successful adults,” Wilkins said.
Earlier in the Legislative session, lawmakers passed another bill Detert sponsored, already signed by Scott, to allow foster children to participate in more everyday activities with less intervention from the state child welfare officials. Detert said foster children were being prevented from playing in high school football games or going on field trips with their classes because they required overnight stays that mandated a state caseworker’s approval.
“These are issues that no one has focused on,” Detert said of foster care legislation. “We’ve had children that have had to labor under our bad laws after all these years.”