Debate Hot Over Foster Transition Funding

Updated: 9:26 AM Jan 25, 2012

Debate Hot Over Foster Transition Funding
A passionate debate over a stipend for foster-care youth ended Tuesday with a House panel voting to reduce eligibility in the Road to Independence program from age 23 to 21.

Posted: 8:55 AM Jan 25, 2012
Reporter: Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, FL — January 25, 2012

A passionate debate over a stipend for foster-care youth ended Tuesday with a House panel voting to reduce eligibility in the Road to Independence program from age 23 to 21.

Less than two weeks after the Senate voted unanimously to make changes to the transition program, the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee voted Tuesday to reduce the cap to 21, a move backers say will save the state $11,680,309. The vote in favor of the conforming bill was 9-5.

Supporters of the measure, including Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples and the panels chairman, said 21 is old enough for young adults to be independent.

“Were not just going to keep handing out money,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and father of two adopted sons. “We can’t just keep extending childhood till they’re 40.”

Hudson said that to put the bill in perspective, it affects just 657 of about 19,000 children and youth in the state system. Its the right thing for Florida, he concluded.

But opponents including young adults who told lawmakers they’re succeeding thanks to the stipend say the help is needed to repair the damage done, first by failed parents and then by state care.

Its not a gift, said April White, 22, who told the panel she’d been in dozens of foster homes and ten different schools. Its the best effort the state could make at being a parent to us.

Andrea Cowart, also 22, said she’d been to so many different schools shed lost count and had dropped out. Nobody pushed me, so I didn’t go.

When Cowart got pregnant at 16, she earned her GED and worked full-time to support her newborn to break the cycle. At 20, when she learned about the RTI stipend, she enrolled in college within a week.

Foster children tend to fall behind in school because they move more often and go to more schools than children with families. They also tend to fail the FCAT and fall behind the grade level for their ages. More than 25 percent of foster-care youth will be incarcerated and more than 20 percent will be homeless before age 25, according to a 2007 report by the public-policy group Pew Charitable Trusts.

The House panel, however, was troubled by reports of frivolous spending by RTI participants without adequate supervision. Baxley cited examples: a $600 puppy and a set of tire rims. They act like they won the lottery, he said.

A Florida Auditor Generals report published last April found many instances of poor oversight of independent living programs by the Department of Children and Families and the 20 lead community based care agencies that contract with DCF to provide them.

The report found that $641,913 in federal funds was paid to ineligible youth and that the agencies were unable to document the appropriateness of the amounts. It also found a dearth of documentation of visitations by providers or proof that case plans for youth aged 13 to 17 had been completed.

In response, the Senate on Jan. 10 passed an overhaul of the RTI program by a 40-0 vote, for the second year in a row. The bill (SB 434) is now in messages.
Sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich and co-sponsored by Republican Senators Ronda Storms, Evelyn Lynn and Paula Dockery, the measure would tighten financial oversight and provide foster youth with education advocates to ensure that their money is well-spent.

There’s no question this is a mistake, Rich said of the change in eligibility. Seventy percent of children in state care reach 18 without having obtained a high school diploma, so I don’t see how you can ask them to be living independently at 21.

In the House, however, a companion bill (HB 417) by Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, still faces four committee stops and has yet to be heard in the first, the House Health & Human Services Access Subcommittee chaired by Baxley.

The committee staff is still working on it, trying to figure out if there’s a fiscal [impact] and what the fiscal is, Baxley said after Tuesdays vote. I don’t know whats going to happen with it yet, but there’s a lot of other opinions out there to be considered before we plop a bill on the table.

According to Rich, the bill brings Florida into line with the 2008 federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. She said that means federal dollars for the states independent living services will increase over time, rendering her bill revenue-neutral.

Andrea Moore, a consultant on the Big Bend Community Based Care initiative Everybody’s a Teacher, said the state should ensure that children stay in school so they have a chance to get a high school diploma by age 18.

“In the grand scheme of the state budget, this is a small investment with a great return,” Moore said, “because if they are successful, they’ll never be dependent on the system again.”


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Alexia Nechayev

FYS Events & Meeting Chair
(Palm Beach)

Hello, My name is Alexia Nechayev. I am 25 years old and I am an alumna of Florida International University where I received my B.A. in Psychology. My future career goal is to be a Lawyer. I was in care for about one year from age 17 to 18. Prior to entering care, I only knew about the negative stigma regarding foster care and while in care that narrative was unfortunately my experience.

In school I felt like I was on display because my status in care was broadcast to other students and in my placement behavior was leveraged for “privileges” that should be a natural right of all children. Because I did not know my rights I did not know that what I was experiencing was wrong. Today this is exactly why I advocate, because I don’t want this to be the same for other youth who are experiencing foster care.

This is my second year on the FYS Statewide Board and I’m happy to be the Events and Meetings Chair this year because my main goal through advocacy is to reach as many people as possible. My favorite thing as a board member is to see how comfortable members become while working together. The community needs to know that youth in foster care are real people, going through some of the hardest moments of their life and youth need to know that their voice is powerful. I believe that we have to speak up and bring these issues to people’s attention so that they do not forget us. Advocacy, education and consistency is the only way.

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