Florida's Children First

Florida is trying to help foster youth, but we need to know that | Commentary

Kyle Johnson is the Administrative Chair of Florida Youth SHINE, a youth-led, peer-driven organization that empowers current and former youth in foster care to become leaders and advocates within their communities.

Kyle Johnson is the Administrative Chair of Florida Youth SHINE, a youth-led, peer-driven organization that empowers current and former youth in foster care to become leaders and advocates within their communities.

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If you’re a kid in foster care, can you earn a drivers license? Can you work a part-time job or play high school sports? Can you aim for a college degree?

Correct answers: Yes, yes and yes.

But if I posed those questions to youth currently living in Florida’s foster care system, they might tell me, “I don’t know” or “I don’t think so.” And that’s a big problem — because our state has poured a lot of time, money and effort into creating programs and policies designed to help children and young adults in foster care live happy and successful lives.

As someone who grew up in the system, I know how scary and confusing child welfare can be. Children are thrown into the thick of that complex network while they’re still learning how the world works — and they (and their caregivers) are not always fully informed about the rights available to them or the resources they can access for help.

Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability’s most recent report clarified the issue: Support was available, but young adults in foster care didn’t know it. In some cases, children weren’t aware those resources even existed. In others, they were only given limited information, delivered in a format that left them unable to remember or understand what they were told.

And that has a big impact. For example, foster youth may not know that they have the right to “normalcy” — hanging out with friends, joining school clubs or athletic teams, or getting a summer internship. And they may not be familiar with the initiatives designed to help them learn to drive, get an internship, or attend a college, university or trade school.

Florida is fortunate to have strong child welfare laws and substantial funding for programs that are proven to work, but that doesn’t mean the job is done. We need to go one step further to ensure that youth can benefit from those achievements.

In March, I joined my peers around the state, including some from Embrace Families’ Youth Advisory Board, as we traveled to Tallahassee for Florida Youth SHINE’s annual Children’s Week. There we spoke with dozens of lawmakers and urged them to do more to educate Florida’s foster youth. Specifically, we asked them to support an educational process and create an Office of the Ombudsman to ensure youth in foster care are informed about the resources and laws in place.

Florida is far from the first state to take on this challenge and take action to effect change. More than a dozen other states require that foster youth be informed about the existing laws and resources available to them. That makes a big difference: Research shows that engaging young people in age-appropriate conversations about the resources available to them can prevent costly societal problems like unemployment, homelessness, or substance dependence, and empower youth to grow into confident, successful adults.

Whether they know it or not, Florida’s youth are counting on us. It’s our responsibility to help them understand the rights, protections and benefits they’re entitled to by law — they should not have to fight for that information, or to venture into adulthood without knowing what support is available.

We were ecstatic that youth voices were heard, and SB 272 and HB 1101 were voted unanimously into law. The Nancy C. Detert Champion for Children Act awaits the governor’s signature but will be a game changer for me and my peers.

I wish I’d had access to more of those resources when I was in foster care. But while I can’t turn back the clock, I’m proud to use my voice to advocate for other youth who are in that position now – and I’d urge anyone who can to do the same.

Kyle Johnson is the Administrative Chair of Florida Youth SHINE, a youth-led, peer-driven organization that empowers current and former youth in foster care to become leaders and advocates within their communities.

Visit www.embracefamilies.org to learn more about current issues impacting youth in care and find out how you can help them reach a brighter future. 

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