For Sen. Nancy Detert and the backers of a bill extending foster care from age 18 to 21, Wednesday's House session was a nail biter.
Named the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act, House Bill 1036, which is co-sponsored by the entire Senate, was temporarily postponed Wednesday morning as Democrats, protesting inaction on health insurance reform, demanded that all bills be read in their entirety. The House is using a robotic auto reader to speed-read bills.
"I was really on pins and needles," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First. "I didn't know if it would really come back. I got really scared."
Detert said she was "nervous" because under House rules, "if they didn't read the bill today and pass it out, it wouldn't pass. And it's such a long bill, they weren't getting to it."
The Venice Republican said she met with House Speaker Will Weatherford and his chief of staff Kathy Mears to discuss the bill Wednesday morning and was told that Weatherford would "see that it gets done even if they have to stay here till midnight. He said we don't let politics get in the way of children. And he kept his word.
After the auto-reader went through the 54-page bill (which took at least 40 minutes) the measure passed 116-1 (Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, voted against it).
"We didn't want to have to lose it because of process," said Detert, who stood in the back of the House to watch the bill pass. "That would have been a tragedy."
While House sponsor Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, didn't get much time to speak about the bill because of time constraints, Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, did read the names of 35 teens and young adults who shared their stories in legislative committees during the session. Most are members of the group Florida Youth Shine, with 12 chapters around the state.
The Shine members "know they know they had an impact" on the legislative process, Spudeas said. "Can you imagine what that feels like, having come from foster care and most of them, nobody heard their voice at all. And now they're not just hearing them, they're wanting them to talk."
In Florida, an average of 1,290 children "aged-out" of care over the past three years, according to the bill analysis. And about 70 percent of teens in foster care have not graduated high school or received their GED by the time they turned 18.
Under the current system, kids are on their own once they turn 18 though thanks to Detert, who started the Road to Independence program more than 10 years ago, the state provides money for former foster children taking classes — $1,256 a month until they're 23. Nearly 3,000 young adults receive Independent Living services now, according to the Department of Children and Families.
Many kids, who often have been sexually abused or neglected, have told legislators they're not ready to be on their own at 18. They are also more likely to become homeless, pregnant or end up incarcerated, according to state statistics.
"My 18th birthday just so happened to fall on Thanksgiving," Kierra Perkins, 19, of Jacksonville, and a member of Florida Youth Shine, told legislators this session. "So while everybody else was planning their family dinner and planning whose house they were going to go to for Thanksgiving, I had to think about 'Where am I going to live.'
Under the new bill, Detert said, "On your 18th birthday you will have a safety net. You can choose to say 'I don't feel comfortable being put out of the street. I would prefer to stay in foster care.' " In that case, the foster parent would receive more money, and training to help teens make the transition to adulthood, which may include helping with pursuing a college or vocational education.
Foster children can also decide that they're ready to go to college, be on their own and accept the Road to Independence money or they can leave and take off and not receive a stipend.
"Here's the beautiful and caring part," Detert told the chamber. "If it doesn't work for you, you can change your mind and come back."
Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins recently appointed 18 new members to the Independent Living Services Advisory Council, which recommended an overhaul of the program.
Wilkins said in a press statement, that the legislation "strengthens the role of foster parents, restructures the Road-to-Independence Program and empowers caregivers."
But the legislation, he said, is "truly the voice of our young people."
Wilkins has called this bill one of two top legislative priorities for the Department. The other bill, which enables foster parents to make more day-to-day decisions for kids and eases regulations that bars foster kids from normal activities like sports or school trips, was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on April 11.