Florida's Children First

Don’t abandon foster kids — help them thrive



Don’t abandon foster kids — help them thrive

February 5, 2012

Imagine abused youngsters growing up in Florida’s foster care system somehow morphing into mature adults living independent lives by age 21. Statistics and countless studies show this idyllic notion borders on wishful thinking. Unfortunately, some prominent legislators in the state capital are banking on this illusion.

A committee bill moving through the Florida House proposes to drop the age cut-off from 23 to 21 for older foster kids participating in the Road to Independence program. That’s the state-funded program designed to help troubled youngsters live on their own once they become too old for foster-care benefits.

Budget savings? The estimated $11 million age-reduction proponents hope to save could lead to costly expenditures in other parts of the budget, such as prison and mental-health services.

The young adults served by the Road to Independence will face difficulties if participants are suddenly turned loose at 21 after years of living in foster care. According to survey data collected for the Florida Department of Children & Families, only 26 percent of foster-care kids turning 18 had completed 12th grade or obtained their GED. That figure increased to 38 percent, a statistic that still doesn’t shout success.

Beyond that, the House measure knocks the state out of contention for roughly $3.4 million of federal funds this year and almost $7 million from Washington the following year. For a state that continues to struggle in balancing its budget, leaving that much money on the table to pay for such a worthy program is unconscionable.

Fortunately, the Florida House has a better alternative in a bill from the Senate. SB 434, sponsored by South Florida Democrat Nan Rich, does more than simply dump foster-care youths to save money, while saving the state money it now spends on the Road to Independence program.

The Senate bill provides enough state funding so that Florida could obtain federal matching funds. As important, it also allows youngsters enrolled in college to continue receiving foster care benefits until age 23, the age closer to the time most students graduate from college. The bill caps foster care benefits at age 21 for those youth who aren’t in college, saving the state a little more than $4 million, and the measure contains provisions to help foster-care youth maintain more stability in obtaining their high-school diplomas.

Rich’s bill outweighs the arbitrary cost-cutting exercise of the House version. Unfortunately, it’s stalled by House Republicans who seem more interested in denying Rich a rare Democratic victory, even though her measure sailed through the state Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Politics aside, SB 434 is a good bill that deserves passage. No reasonable parent would arbitrarily pull the rug out from other their aspiring offspring at age 21. Neither should the Florida House when it comes to wards of the state.

Copyright © 2012, Orlando Sentinel



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