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Foster teens' lonely road

Hundreds of older teens have lost their state aid, some even the roof over their heads, under a new state law that pushes teens out of foster care at age 18. The "Road to Independence" Act _ dubbed the "Road to Homelessness" law by child advocates _ is, in key respects, as short-sighted as it is heartless. Lawmakers should find the earliest opportunity to soften its worst aspects, before more foster teens lose their homes and hopes.

Until now, foster children who turned 18 could remain in their foster homes and receive services until age 23, provided they attended school full-time. But under the new law, passed last year but fully effective this week, foster teens 18 and older are no longer part of the foster care program, able to live rent-free with their foster parents. Instead, they are pushed out the door, ready or not. Those in school full-time receive a monthly stipend to use toward room and board as long as they make passing grades. The others get only minimal help, while losing their Medicaid health care benefits altogether.

The law does little to salvage Florida's poor record in preparing foster children for independence. While its intent may have been noble _ it does expand transitional services for younger foster teens and covers, for the first time, former foster teens even after they leave the system _ it forsakes the most vulnerable teens, at what can be the most critical juncture in their lives.

For instance, what is to happen to a foster teen, still in high school, who makes failing grades despite his best efforts? Or the 19-year-old foster teen who is barely making it in her GED program, with few life or job skills to fall back on? After all, it is not unusual for foster teens to struggle in school, many having been shuffled from home to home and school to school, with gaps in learning all the while. The law turns those teens out at 18 to fend for themselves, with no diploma, no shelter, no long-term help.

"We are in an emergency situation with these foster teens," said Rep. Nan Rich, D-Broward, who supported the bill but now worries about its consequences. "Some are now out there on the street, totally unprepared to be on their own."

Rich is among those pushing to address the issue, at least as it relates to teens with developmental disabilities and mental health needs, during the special session that begins Wednesday. She's right that something needs to be done, and quickly.

The cost of delay will be measurable on Florida's streets and in its jails, places where foster teens go when home is no longer there.