Saturday, May 26, 2018
Politics

Law lets foster children ease into adulthood with a safety net

She was just a tiny thing when her mother walked out the door. Soon after, her father headed that direction, too.

And so began Andrea Coward's strange life with the state of Florida as her parents. She became a child vagabond, moving from one foster home to the next. Some stays were longer than others, most were over in a matter of months.

By her count, she was on her 17th different school when the fatigue of new classmates, new teachers and another round of placement tests eventually led her to drop out. As if to confirm fears and statistics, she was pregnant a short time later.

And by the time she reached her 18th birthday, the state declared she was all grown up.

Blow out the candles and pack your bags.

"A lot of foster kids don't have a normal childhood,'' Coward says now. "And the day they turn 18, they're supposed to function as normal adults.''

Thankfully, it doesn't have to be that way any longer. Just last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that had been pushed through the Legislature by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, allowing teenagers to remain in foster homes beyond their 18th birthday.

There are conditions that must be met — remaining a full-time student among them — and other details still to be worked out before the law takes effect in 2014, but the general concept is our most vulnerable young adults will now have a safety net.

"This allows them to stay in a stable environment when they turn 18, and not have to worry about where they're going to live, what they're going to eat or how they're going to pay their bills,'' said Kathy Mize-Plummer, executive director of Ready for Life, a Pinellas nonprofit that helps foster kids transition to independence.

"It takes care of a lot of things that 18-year-olds shouldn't have to worry about.''

Previous policies were rooted more in theory than reality — a presumption that foster kids should be ready to fend for themselves once the law determined they were adults.

It was as if no one stopped to think that a lot of 18-year-olds are still in high school. Or that a lot of college students are still supported by their parents.

It also failed to take into account that many foster kids have been victims of abuse or neglect. Many have bounced from home to home, and have fallen behind in school.

Foster kids who were full-time students were eligible for a monthly stipend, but the law said they could no longer stay in group homes with other minors. Other restrictions even made it difficult for many to remain with families in private residences.

"If the state is going to be the parent, then let's do what a parent would normally do,'' said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First.

"No kid should have to celebrate their 18th birthday, and then go find a different bed to sleep in. They should have the option, like most kids, to finish high school at home. Even if they don't like the foster home or even if they go out on their own and mess up, they should still have the option to come home and get some help.''

Detert, who has been in the Legislature for 13 years, has said the bill was the most important she has sponsored. Coupled with another bill that makes it easier for foster kids to join extracurricular activities in school, the idea is to make life as normal as possible.

Cowart, 23, is now a youth development specialist at Ready For Life, and went to Tallahassee this spring to lobby on behalf of Detert's legislation.

Lately, she has been talking to teenagers about this new law.

She tells them stories of striking out at age 18 and juggling three jobs at Steak 'n Shake, a book store and a telemarketing company. Of sleeping on the couch of a boyfriend's relative while her infant daughter slept in a playpen beside her.

"When we first presented this to them, a lot of them said 'Oh, I don't want to stay in a foster home any longer than I have to,' " Cowart said. "I tell them, 'It's a lot different when you're out on your own. This is a great opportunity you're going to be given.'

"This will be a much more natural transition to become an adult. You can leave home when you're ready, not just because your birthday is some magical date.''

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