Foster care system changes ‘let kids be kids,’ support their education

Posted: May 13, 2013 – 4:06pm  |  Updated: May 14, 2013 – 4:05am
David Wilkins says system changes are establishing a ‘bill of rights’ for children.

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Two new watershed laws changing Florida’s foster care system will vastly improve children’s lives and give foster parents greater flexibility, according to David Wilkins, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families.

“This is the biggest year for improvements in foster care in the history of the system,” Wilkins said Monday on a visit to Jacksonville.

The so-called “normalcy” law, which Gov. Rick Scott has signed, eliminates red tape that required foster parents to get caseworker approval before their foster children could take part in such things as slumber parties, extracurricular activities or part-time jobs.

The other change is called the Independent Living Act, which extends foster care from age 18 to 21 for youth who stay in school. Scott is expected to sign off on that as well, according to regional spokesman John Harrell.

Statewide there are about 19,500 children in foster care, with 902 in the 20-county Northeast Florida region and 530 in the five-county metropolitan Jacksonville area.

Tammy McGuire of Jacksonville has fostered 49 children over eight years — six long-term and others in temporary care — and said the changes are greatly needed.

“As foster parents, we want kids to feel like they are in a stable, loving environment,” she said.

The caseworker-approval requirements stemmed from some lax foster parents. “But quality foster parents are coming out of the woodwork,” she said, and they are holding everyone else in the system accountable.

The age extension will also provide stability, said McGuire, who has a 19-year-old son who is in college and living at home. “I couldn’t see him on his own,” she said.

Wilkins said he wanted to implement the changes when he took office two years ago. But he said he was stalled by “push back” from some foster care providers who, for instance, worried about the liability that could come with the new flexibility. The legislation protects them as long as they make “reasonable and prudent” decisions about what they allow a foster child to do, he said.

“We are establishing a bill of rights for children,” he said.

The parental flexibility likely will entice more people to be foster parents and reduce the number of children who are in group homes, he said.

Meanwhile, extending foster care will continue state support for youth who are still in school — high school, college or GED or vocational programs. Also, it allows foster children who were behind in their studies to catch up, Wilkins said.

“Most kids in foster care end up losing a year because of changing schools or trauma [from being removed from their home],” he said. “This gives those kids more protection and stability in their lives.”

Lee Kaywork, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Family Support Services of North Florida, lead agency for foster care, adoption and family preservation in Duval and Nassau counties, applauded the changes.

“This is a great break,” he said.

The normalcy law will allow “children to be children,” he said, and ease the demands on foster parents who already “go above and beyond.” And the foster care extension allows older youth “to maintain continuity,” he said., (904) 359-4109



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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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