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Independent living program for foster kids is sorely needed and should not be judged by one tragic outcome, say DCF and Hillsborough Kids Inc.

TAMPA — Foster care managers, stung by a report criticizing their handling of a teen mom living alone whose baby was murdered, defended their independent living program Thursday.

"This isn't one of those cases where a kid fell through the cracks or people were ignoring their job," said Nick Cox, DCF regional director.

Jasmine Bedwell, 17, was part of the state's Subsidized Independent Living Program, which allows foster children between ages 16 and 17 to live by themselves while developing into adults.

On May 5, authorities say, her boyfriend barged into her apartment, attacked her and killed 3-month-old Emanuel Murray, whose body was found on a highway. Richard McTear, 21, remains jailed without bail facing first-degree murder and 11 other charges.

In a report released Wednesday, DCF officials said they though their social service contractor, Hillsborough Kids Inc., should not have put Bedwell in the Subsidized Independent Living program.

Living alone put too much responsibility on her to keep her abuser away, they maintained. And they faulted her case manager for not being aware of McTear's criminal background, including a history of domestic violence arrests that began at age 14.

Bedwell had been in foster care for at least three years. She ran away at least 21 times, according to Tampa police.

At 17, she wanted her own place. Hillsborough Kids obliged after case workers decided it was their best chance to keep her from running from supervision. They set her up with an apartment through the state program.

"Independent Living is a really important program for these kids as they get older before they age out of (foster) care," said Cox. "It's a program we ought to have. We just need to make sure we're selecting kids properly."

Hillsborough Kids CEO Jeff Rainey said when foster children reach their late teen years, many are ready to live on their own, but they need help learning how.

"Obviously, we don't abandon them,'' Rainey said. "We work with them, and they have continued support of the independent living program. ... Jasmine was getting a lot of that."

Rainey acknowledged that Bedwell could have been safer in a foster home, but he defended his staff, saying they checked in with her every day.

"She didn't meet all the criteria, but again we thought at the time it would be the best place for her to fit her individual needs," Rainey said.

"From what we saw, she was getting on the right track. She hadn't run away in a couple of months. She was adamant she wanted to stay in her own apartment. Had we put her in foster care, she would have potentially run and not had the services that were available to her."

Hillsborough Kids and its case workers face no sanctions or punishment for the handling of Bedwell's case, Rainey said.

They do intend to examine the criticism and learn from it, to improve the system, he said.

DCF recommended an immediate safety check of all Hillsborough foster children in the Independent Living program.

Rainey said that is underway.

There are just three Hillsborough foster children living on their own through the program, and 65 statewide, DCF reported. To qualify and remain eligible, teens are expected to work, go to school or perform community service.

They must establish a bank account, get good grades and complete life skills training classes. They have to have shown good behavior in foster care.

A team of case workers, including therapists and teachers, has the final say.

Teens in the program have three main people checking on them: A coordinator who helps them find jobs, get into school and meet daily needs. A case manager who meets with the child at least every 30 days. And a guardian ad litem, who speaks on behalf of the child's best interest in court meets with kids like Bedwell every 30 days.

"We were going above and beyond that with her because she had a child and we were becoming more and more aware of her involvement with McTear," Rainey said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Independent living program for foster kids is sorely needed and should not be judged by one tragic outcome, say DCF and Hillsborough Kids Inc. 05/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 9:52am]
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