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Lawmakers Tweak Extended Foster Care Law

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

  Lawmakers are working on changes to a two-year-old law that extended foster care in Florida from ages 18 to 21 and sought to give kids more time to prepare for independence.

Hailed as groundbreaking --- in fact, it was named the "Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act" for its Senate sponsor --- the law is likely to get a tweak this session.

The change is aimed at clarifying which state agency provides which services to foster kids who can't live independently due to severe disabilities and who will need more services for longer periods of time.

"It's in everybody's best interest to get it done," Detert, a Venice Republican, said last week. "And there's no resistance. It's just a matter of the machinations of the process."

The law extending foster care went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. Before that, severely disabled foster kids turning 18 would be eligible on an emergency basis for what is known as the Agency for Persons with Disabilities' Medicaid "home- and community-based" services waiver. The children's legal representatives could cite impending homelessness as an emergency, which could qualify them for the sought-after waiver.

Children in foster care have a much higher rate of disabilities than the general population and are 40 percent to 60 percent more likely to become homeless.

But since the law passed, young adults have had the option of staying in foster care until age 21 --- or age 22 for those with major disabilities. That in turn has blurred the lines between services that are covered under the Agency for Persons with Disabilities waiver and services provided by the privatized community-based care agencies, which get funding through the Department of Children and Families.

Both state agencies support the legislative fix, which takes the form of language in a budget-implementing bill (SB 2502).

The bill states that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities "shall provide services that are not otherwise available under the state Medicaid plan or through the child welfare system … and, for an eligible individual at least 18 years old but not yet 22, the agency shall also provide residential habilitation services, such as supervision and training, to assist the individual (to) improve skills related to activities of daily living."

Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll and Agency for Persons with Disabilities Director Barbara Palmer said they hope the language makes it into law this year.

"We've worked hard with all of the stakeholders to get it to a place where we think it ought to be," Carroll said. "And we all feel comfortable that all of those kids that really need to be on the waiver are going to be on the waiver. … I'm hoping when all is said and done, we get there."

Palmer agreed. She said that after the law changed, her agency tried to continue paying for young adults aging out of foster care who also qualified for the home- and community-based services waiver.

"We'd been paying for them in the past, and our feeling was, 'It's not going to cost us any more; we should continue to pay for them,'" Palmer said. "But the way the law passed several years ago, it was an inadvertent mistake. And so in order for to us to be able to really pay for them, and them have foster care services --- to have all of those things, which is what we all want for them --- we have to change the law."

Lawmakers are also considering a measure that would provide guardians to youths aging out of foster care who are developmentally disabled and lack the mental capacity to make decisions about their own care.

The proposal (HB 437 and SB 496) would require case planning to identify children who will need the assistance when they are 17 years old --- before they turn 18 and leave the foster-care system. It's estimated that about 90 young people would be affected. The legislation is moving in both chambers.