Will cuts to foster care cost more in the long run?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Mental health professionals will tell you there are children across the Tampa Bay area who have been through hell. Many have been ripped out of the care of their parents due to abuse, neglect, or even death. Some are forced to live in a stranger’s home and, in some instances, children in state care will live in dozens of foster care homes while waiting to be adopted.

The experience can be traumatic, but for those young people who age out of the system, they’re getting a rude awakening. Florida lawmakers want to cut back on how long it will pay to help them get their lives on track. It’s a move that is expected to save Florida nearly $11.7 million.

April White, 21, of St. Petersburg has been through more heartache and disappointment in her young life than most experience in a lifetime. She was born into state care when her mother gave birth to her in prison.

With a tear rolling down her cheek, White says, “The people that I thought loved me just didn’t. I felt like they didn’t care about me at all. When I was 2 years old, I got adopted by my grandmother and I was placed back in care at 5 due to physical abuse.”

White went through 32 different foster homes between the ages of 5 and 12. She was eventually adopted by her case worker, but was returned to state care a second time when she was 16. She aged out of the system before she could find a permanent home.

White says she’s managed to make a life for herself despite that, though, with financial help from Florida’s “Road to Independence” program. It’s where the state gives people just like her between the ages of 13 and 23 a monthly stipend.

Kathy Mize is the executive director of Ready for Life, which is a private organization. It’s part of a statewide organization called Florida Youth Shine, which has chapters across Florida.

Mize’s organization helps connect young people who’ve aged out of the system with the resources they need to become successful in life. She says the Road to Independence program provides those young people with the skills most will never have a chance to attain because they don’t have parents.

She says, “Providing life skills training, help with things like budgeting, how to find your first apartment, bank accounts, just everything a parent would teach their child as they’re growing up and moving out on their own.”

Lawmakers in Tallahassee want to push back how long the Road to Independence program will financially support people like April. Many of them want to cut off help at the age of 21.

Republican Representative Matt Hudson of Naples supports the proposal. “I think most people would say, ‘Hey, you know, there comes a point when you have to be responsible for yourself.’ Yes, there were certain provisions in your life that were challenging, there were hurdles and obstacles that were even cruddy, but you know what? There comes a point when you say, ‘You know what? I’m going to stand up for myself and I’m going to take care of myself.'”

But Mize says the young people who age out of the foster care system are different than most other young people. She says that’s because of the trauma these young people have experienced. She says, “Many of them are still in high school when they turn 18 or they’re trying to get their GED — some all the way from 21 to 22. So even though our lawmakers think 21 is plenty of time for them to be connected, to be stable, to be on their own, it really isn’t. From 21 to 23 is really a critical time for them. That’s when we see a lot of stability occur.”

Mize adds, “Moving forward in their education, getting a job. I think if we cut that off at 21 we’re going to have far more issues with young people dropping out of school, young people not having a place to live, being homeless. I think that extra two years is really making a huge difference in their life. We are going to have more youth that may be parenting and not have the support they need so their children will end up in our system.”

April says the funding has made a difference in her life, which is the main reason she says she traveled to Tallahassee this week to share her life story with lawmakers. She’s using her stipend to study social work at St. Petersburg College.

April turns 22 on Thursday and works part-time at Ready for Life helping other young people going through the same issues she’s faced.


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