Florida's Children First

Keys to Independence helps foster kids get drivers licenses

Tamara Vernette is 19, but she still doesn’t have her drivers license.

Vernette, who spent most of her teenage years in group foster care, didn’t have anyone to teach her to drive, although she dreamed about the mobility a car would have given her.

“Right now, I would pretty much be able to have any job I want, go to any school I want,” said Vernette, who gets around by bus.
A pilot program started this month is designed to help young people such as Vernette. Funded by a new state law, Keys to Independence will make driver education and insurance available — and affordable — to foster children.

Insurance will be provided through the Florida Automobile Joint Underwriting Association, and the state will foot the bill.

“The biggest barrier to foster youth getting a drivers license is the insurance,” said Gerry Glynn, chief legal officer for the nonprofit Community Based Care of Central Florida, which is administering the program statewide. “Before now, nobody would sell them insurance.”

Unlike other teens, foster kids don’t live with parents who typically add them to their auto insurance policies. Children living in group homes and those who move among placements have been at a particular disadvantage.

The new law acknowledges the financial burden and allows 16- and 17-year-olds who have completed a driver-education course to buy insurance as if they were adults. Foster parents also could add the teens to their insurance policies and be reimbursed by the state, Glynn said.

About 9 percent of foster children ages 15 to 17 surveyed in June by the Florida Department of Children and Families had a learner’s permit. Just 3 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds had a drivers license.

Keys to Independence has $800,000 to spend during the 2014-2015 year. Glynn estimated that will help about 200 foster children.

The program will pay for learner’s-permit and drivers-license fees, driver education, a traffic-law and substance-abuse course needed to obtain a license, insurance and deductibles in case of a crash.

Community Based Care officials hope foster parents, guardians ad litem and mentors will give kids a chance to practice driving. They’re also hoping to find driver schools that will donate their services.

“A key to normalcy in life in Florida is a drivers license,” Glynn said. “This is a huge step forward.”

Keys to Independence is designed to help foster children go through a rite of passage that other kids experience, allowing them to get to work, school and social engagements more easily.

“Overall, it’s a great idea … so more kids have resources and options about what they can do and where they can go instead of feeling grounded,” said Vernette, who is not eligible for Keys to Independence because she is no longer in licensed foster care.

Florida is the second state to institute such a program, Glynn said. Missouri was first.

sjacobson@tribpub.com or 407-540-5981


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