Advocates Hope Governor Will Sign Bill Extending Age For Foster Care Kids

May 2, 2013

A bill extending the age for those aging out of Florida’s foster care system is now heading to the Governor. The measure aiming to help foster care kids have more of an advantage when they enter into adulthood has now passed the full state Legislature.

“You know, I hear a lot of my peers saying oh, I can’t wait until I turn 18. I tell them yes you can because if you think you’re turning 18 to be grown? No,” said Kierra Perkins.

Growing up in the foster care system wasn’t easy for Kierra, and it was even harder when she had to set out on her own when she turned 18.

“My 18th birthday just happened to fall on Thanksgiving. So, while everybody else was planning their family dinner, and planning whose house they were going to for Thanksgiving, I had to think about ‘where am I going to live,’” asked Kierra.

Kierra says thankfully, she made a deal with her foster parent to stay until she could come up with a plan, but she says not every foster kid has that choice when they turn 18. And, she says even with some help, her road still wasn’t easy:

“You shouldn’t have to ponder that, like two weeks before your birthday, ‘ok, I’m turning 18 in two weeks. Now, where am I going to live?’ When I turned 18, I didn’t have any furniture, I didn’t have anything, And, I’m sitting here, just like ‘well, ok, I’m going to have an apartment, but I don’t know how to pay bills. I don’t have any furniture, I don’t have anywhere to sleep. So, just being there, and being able to maybe save your money, or just learn how to be an adult, is very essential,” Kierra added.

That’s why Kierra says she’s in favor of a bill sponsored by Republican Senator Nancy Detert of Venice that would extend the age of those aging out of foster care from 18 to 21.

The bill, a priority of the Florida Department of Children and Families, also makes sure the child welfare agency has services to help older foster care kids become more self-sufficient. It also includes an increase in pay for foster care parents to teach life-skills to their foster kids.

When the bill recently came up for a vote in the Senate, Senate President Don Gaetz, in a rare move, stepped down from his podium to offer an amendment to Detert’s bill:

“It is unusual for a presiding officer to take the floor on a bill or an amendment, and I have not done so in this session. But, I come to the floor with this amendment and ask your consideration, and so, Mr. President [Thrasher], I offer this amendment that this bill be cited as the ‘Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act,” said Gaetz as lawmakers applauded for Detert.

When the amendment passed, an emotional Detert said she was proud to have her name on legislation like this, and she does it for people, like Kierra:

“One girl testified this year her 18th birthday fell on Thanksgiving, and all she could think of is I’m being put on the street for Thanksgiving, and she didn’t know how she was supposed to deal with that. Now, those days are over. Florida is in the forefront. We’ll cover them until they’re 21. This is the most caring package that’s ever been my honor to carry and everyone here shares in the success, and thank you for honoring me. I really appreciate it,” said Detert.

With all her fellow lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors, Detert’s bill passed in the Senate unanimously 38-0.

Meanwhile, over in the other chamber, the bill almost became a casualty of the standoff between House Republicans and Democrats over taking federal dollars to fund health care in Florida. To slow the legislative process, Democrats had pushed to have all bills fully read Wednesday. And, Detert’s bill is very long.

But, Detert, worried about the fate of her bill, says she talked to House Speaker Will Weatherford, who assured her that her bill would be heard. And, when it was taken up Wednesday, it was read by the House Auto Reader called Mary:

“A bill be entitled an act relating to independent living, providing a short title; amending s. 39.013, F.S.; providing that when the court obtains jurisdiction over a child who has been found to be dependent, the court retains jurisdiction until the child reaches 21 years of age, providing exceptions," read the auto-reader.

It took the auto-reader almost an hour to read the more than 1500 lines of the 54-page bill. And, the bill’s House sponsor, Republican Representative Keith Perry tried to make light of it.

“Thank you, Madame Speaker for that short bill read," joked Perry." This bill makes needed changes to the Independent Living Program.”

And, despite their differences, the House Democrats and Republicans showed their bipartisan support for the bill. The measure passed the House Wednesday on a 116-1 with Republican Representative Matt Hudson as the lone dissenting vote. The measure now heads to the Governor.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.