Giving Florida’s foster kids a chance to live a ‘normal’ life
By Gloria Fletcher
Published: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 6:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 6:15 p.m.
For Florida kids in foster care — and the foster parents, guardians and attorneys who advocate for their lives and futures — the word “normal” is not in their vocabulary.
They have little access to “normal” health care channels, like other kids do. They often get shuttled from one school to the next as foster homes change. School field trips, play dates and sleepovers require approval from case managers, at best, or at worst, fingerprints and background checks.
Some 19,000 kids in Florida foster care cannot live the life of a normal child and participate in normal childhood activities.
“In our zest to protect foster care kids, we’ve basically bubble wrapped them and kept them from normalcy throughout their childhood,” said state Sen. Nancy C. Detert.
However, both the Florida House and Senate have passed bills that will help eliminate some restrictions and reporting requirements that prevent foster children from enjoying normal activities like other kids. It now awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s expected signature to become law.
This change had huge community support. More than two dozen members of Florida Youth SHINE, an advocacy group of current and former foster kids, spoke in support of the proposal. They were backed, as they often are, by members of the Florida Guardian ad Litem program and Florida’s Children First. The intention was clear: We needed to educate legislators about the need to help foster children lead more normal lives.
I believe the message got through. When Scott signs the bill, foster parents will be free to act like “normal” parents. Gone will be requests for approval from agencies and the courts to allow kids in their care to do what any other kid can. Scheduling doctor’s visits, attending or changing schools, even having sleepovers or birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese — without fingerprints of host parents — all will become part of their normal lives. Let these kids be kids.
Another bill under review will raise the age limit of foster care from 18 to 21. “Aging out” has long been a problem for young adults facing uncertain, scary futures beyond foster care.
A child leaving foster care often does not have a birth certificate, Social Security card nor their immunization records. While some children are more than capable of leaving home at 18, armed with survival skills and information to survive in the world, most foster children are not ready for this step at 18.
Together, these bills represent a “dramatic shift in the culture of the program,” said Secretary David Wilkins of the Department of Children and Families.
This debate has shown foster kids are not just files to review or cases to be shuttled about. And they’re not china dolls to be bubble wrapped and protected.
They are kids. All they want are normal lives. Is that really too much to ask?
Gloria Fletcher is a Gainesville lawyer and vice president of Florida’s Children First, a children’s advocacy group.