TALLAHASSEE — Martin Gordon, 19, came to the Capitol to tell legislators his experiences in the foster care system hoping that his voice — and the voices of 26 other current and former foster children — would make a difference. On Wednesday, they got their answer.
The Florida Senate passed a bill 38-0 eliminating many of the restrictions that keep foster children from participating in normal activities, like a field trip, sleepover, sporting event, vacation or even a trip to the beach. The bill, HB 215, passed the House earlier this month and now heads to Gov. Rick Scott's desk.
Scott is expected to sign the measure.
When he does, there will be a "dramatic shift in the culture of the program," said David Wilkins, secretary of the Department of Children and Families. The bill, and another proposal that would extend foster care from age 18 to 21, are the department's two priorities this session, Wilkins said. "In essence, we in the state are willing to take on more risk, more liability and more media exposure all in the name of helping kids have the chance to have a normal life."
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Of the state's nearly 19,000 kids in foster care, more than half are placed with relatives — while about 9,000 live in foster care homes or group homes. Sixty percent of foster children ages 13 to 17 live in group homes, according to the state.
Years of focusing on safety and concern about liability helped lead to the current situation, with background checks and fingerprinting required for a foster kid to go on an overnight school or sports trip or to stay at a friend's house.
New legislation would strip those hurdles away.
"We spent so much time writing rules to make these kids safe, that what we ended up doing is bubble-wrapping these kids," said Senate sponsor Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. "They don't want to have 'foster kid' stamped on their forehead."
That's exactly what happened to Gordon, a student at Tallahassee Community College who had been in foster care at Boys Town North Florida.
"I had to have my friends' parents get fingerprinted in order to spend time with them," said Gordon, a member of the foster care advocacy group Florida Youth Shine. Friends stopped inviting him over, he told a Senate panel. "I felt like an outcast. I did not have a real high school life. I shouldn't have to say, 'I'm in foster care.' They should just see me as a normal kid."
There's a "big label on these kids everywhere they go," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First, the umbrella organization for Florida Youth Shine.
And it's not only teens who are impacted, said Miami foster mom Trudy Petkovich. "We want our younger children to be able to go to Chuck E. Cheese with their best friend's family." Foster care parents, she said, "can make informed decisions for their children just as they would their own birth or adoptive children."
The bill, which was sponsored in the House by Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, allows licensed caregivers to make decisions based on the standard of what a "reasonable and prudent parent" would do.
The role of foster parents could expand further if another piece of legislation passes the Legislature.
Under the current system, foster care children "age out" at 18, even if they're still in school. The state provides money for former foster children taking classes — $1,256 a month until they're 23 — but children lose a lifeline to a family.
A bill being considered in the House and Senate, HB 1315 and SB 1036, would give foster children additional options.
They could leave foster care at 18 and receive no financial help, except for some transition money, from the state. They could decide to stay in their foster care home until they turn 21 (foster care parents would continue to receive payment, with a slight increase, for that child). Or the teens could leave foster care, take the money and enroll in school.
Shamane Kirkland, a 17-year-old sophomore at Western High School in Davie, will be a junior when she "ages out," and she says she's not ready to leave.
"When I turn 18, I'm going to still need my foster mom to help me with my homework, help me get up for school and, not only that, help me keep my mind on finishing school and going to college," she said.
The cost to the state is expected to remain the same: $49 million.
Children who leave their foster home would also be allowed to come back, provided they're in school.
"Your doors are still open for your child to come home," D'atra Franklin, 23 and a former foster care youth, told a House panel. "Aren't we your children, too?"