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Full Senate jumps on foster care bill as cosponsors

In one of those rare moments of enthusiastic bipartisan support, the Senate voted 39-0 on Thursday to join Sen. Nancy Detert as co-sponsors of a bill to allow teens and young adults to stay in foster care until age 21.

The Venice Republican, who has worked on foster care issues for more than 10 years, said the bill (SB 1036) would give teens who currently "age out" of the system at 18 a "safety net." Many of these kids are still in high school or getting a GED at age 18 because their lives and education has been so disrupted.

In Florida, an average of 1,290 children aged-out of care over the past three years, according to the state.

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The bill (SB 1036), presented on second reading, will now be scheduled for a third reading and a vote. Rep. Keith Perry said he temporarily postponed a vote on House Bill 1315 earlier this week in order to take up the Senate version, which looks certain to pass.

Under the current system, foster care kids attending classes can receive a monthly stipend of $1,256 a month, but Department of Children and Familes Secretary David Wilkins said "writing checks to kids" caused problems. Many of the 18 year olds receiving stipends were still in high school and didn't know how to manage expenses, or in some cases their money was stolen.

With the new bill, kids will stay in foster care until they graduate high school or get their GED. There will be some stricter educational requirements for foster care kids to receive the Road to Indepedence money; they'll have to attend post-secondary or vocational education for nine hours (about three college classes) and work part-time although there are exemptions. In addition, there will be a payment system to cover room and board, utilities and fixed expenses instead of the young people making payments themselves. Kids can also choose not to accept any Road to Independence money.

"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."

During the session, dozens of current and foster care teens and young adults have told their stories at legislative committee meetings, most saying they weren't ready to be out on their own at 18, and would have preferred to stay in their foster home or group home a few more years.

As part of the new bill, The Department of Children and Families and the Department of Education will be providing counselors to help foster care kids on college campuses.

Providing some history on the bill, Detert said that she and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, both elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, realized then that "foster care kids were put on the street at age 18," and even if they were in high school, the care ended. "There was no help and these kids were ending up homeless or in jail."

A visit from a foster care kid in 2000 who said the system does "nothing to help me" led to the Road to Independence program, which provides a monthly stipend of $1,256 a month for former foster children who are in school, a vocational program or job training until age 23.

The independent living bill is the second of two foster care measures Detert has sponsored this year -- both top priorities for Wilkins. A bill that empowers foster care parents to make routine decisions for kids, like going on a school trip or joining a team without having to go through the state, was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on April 11.

Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs, D-Delray Beach suggested opening up the bill to more cosponsors at Thursday's meeting after praising Deter for "changing the lives of so many children."