A Little More Room to Grow Up

New laws will allow foster children to stay in the system until they’re 21 and give foster parents more say in their care


Life can be difficult for foster children who lose their support system as they attempt to enter the adult world of finding jobs, finding a place to live, paying bills, paying taxes, arranging for car insurance and other tasks, like doing laundry and shopping for groceries.

Many foster children have been behind most of their lives because of the psychological trauma during their formative years from being neglected or abused, being separated from their homes, friends and families, and shuffling between several homes or group homes. Often, they struggle in school.

Others, like Jakayla Rhodes, have the added difficulty of finishing high school, preparing for college and caring for a child — Rhodes has a 3-year-old son, Caron.

State officials hope to reverse the sad trends of children in foster care. A state survey last year of former foster children between the ages of 18 and 23 found that 40 percent had been arrested at least once, 47 percent were receiving food stamps, 40 percent had not received a high school diploma or GED, and 45 percent of the young women had children.

There are 19,500 children in foster care in Florida, with 902 in the 20-county Northeast Florida area and 530 in Duval County.

Rhodes is one of the teenagers who has aged out of the system but, thanks to the state’s Road to Independence program, she attends high school while living in an apartment on the campus of Children’s Home Society of Florida with her son.

A new law awaiting the governor’s signature will allow students attending school or starting careers to stay in the foster care system until they are 21.

Foster mother Linda Johnson said many of the 16 foster children she has cared for since 1989 were not ready to be independent when they turned 18. She supports the new law.

“I think it's a wonderful idea. Eighteen is too early. This will give us more time to mentor them and teach them money management and coping skills. This will give us time to work with them and make them a more mature adult,” said Johnson, who has three of her own children, two teenaged daughters and a 6-year-old son.

Johnson said she always believed it was her job to get the youngsters where they need to be when they reached 18, but she said some seem to need more time to “age out correctly.”

When teenagers come to her, many have been moved 20 or 30 times, and they lack trust and don’t feel they can confide in adults, she said. She tries to change that. Most of them end up calling her Mom and still keep in touch with her, she said.

“I love what I do,” Johnson said. “I always try to get them to be their best.”

“These kids should have every opportunity. It is not their fault that they're in the system,” said Kymberly Cook, executive director of the Jacksonville branch of the Children’s Home Society of Florida.

“These kids have been abused, neglected or abandoned,” she said.

“At 18, they're not prepared to be completely independent,” Cook said. “The problem at 18 is they are adults and they want to get out and try their wings. Then, they find themselves in crisis.”

Rhodes was not aware of the new law, but she thinks it's a good idea. She believes it could help people like her who spend years in foster care.

Nationwide, about 30,000 children each year in foster care age out when they turn 18 and are no longer eligible for care. In Florida, according to the Department of Children & Families, about 1,290 children age out each year.

Another measure, passed earlier in the session by the 2013 Legislature, seeks to give youngsters a more normal childhood. Gov. Rick Scott, in signing the legislation, called it the “Let Kids Be Kids” bill.

A summary prepared for lawmakers said foster children often miss out on “many of the rites of passage common to their peers” such as driving, participating in sports, spending a night with friends, and going to the prom. Prior to the new law, foster parents or caregivers would have to get approval for each activity from their caseworkers.

Now foster parents can make many of the day-to-day decisions, using a “reasonable and prudent parent standard,” which basically means treating foster children like their own children.

Johnson, as a foster mother, said she always had a close relationship with a child’s caseworker, and never had a problem dealing with the rules.

“I consider my foster kids children as my kids,” she said.

In a May 9 testimony before Congress, the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, told lawmakers about Florida’s ongoing culture change designed to restore some normalcy to the lives of foster children.

“We felt our main purpose was to protect these children … but in our quest to keep them safe, what we’ve done is bubble-wrap kids and deprive them of any kind of normalcy when it comes to childhood,” Detert said.

Cook said Rhodes has a bright future, despite living a large portion of her life as a foster child. In the Road to Independence program, she is eligible for childcare, parenting classes, mentoring, tutoring, life skills and financial classes.

Rhodes is a senior at Englewood High School and needs only a few classes remaining to graduate. She wants to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville and eventually become a lawyer. Rhodes, who was born in Jacksonville and lived in California, does not freely talk about the factors that landed her in foster care.

“She is a sweet child. Whatever she wants to do, she can do. She has overcome obstacles,” Cook said.

The Children’s Home Society of Florida is the oldest and largest nonprofit in Florida that serves children and families, serving more than 76,000 each year. Its Buckner Division, located in Jacksonville, serves 9,000 children and families in Northeast Florida each year. It contracts with Family Support Services of North Florida to provide foster services, case management, foster homes and group homes, Cook said.

The goals of the organization are “to break the generational cycle of abuse in more families; to protect children from harm; to heal children who’ve been hurt; to create strong, stable families and to help children grow up safe, healthy and prepared for life.”

“We want to give teens a fighting chance for a future,” Cook said. “This legislation gives them a better chance to succeed.”

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