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Broward Legislator To DeSantis: Pause Young People Aging Out Of Foster Care During Pandemic

Rep. Patricia Williams speaks during a meeting of the House education committee in January 2019.
Florida House
Rep. Patricia Williams speaks during a meeting of the House education committee in January 2019.

Rep. Patricia Williams’ foster daughter, Ronia, turned 18 last November — just months before the COVID-19 pandemic would eviscerate the economy, limiting opportunities for jobs and housing.

“I know she is not ready for the world. I keep her here as my own, and whatever I can do to make sure that she is ready for the next level, I am prepared to do so. But every foster parent is not as open minded as I am,” said Williams, a Democrat from Pompano Beach.

"We need major assistance to help young people be ready for the next level in life," she said.

Williams is asking Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Department of Children and Families to institute a moratorium on young people aging out of the foster care system, to help them avoid the two-pronged health and economic crises of COVID-19 without state support.

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Typically, foster children in Florida are released from state custody when they turn 18. A law passed in 2013 gave them the option to stay in the system until they're 21. Those with disabilities can remain until age 22. Williams thinks they need extra help through age 24.

“A temporary exception to the aging-out policy, and waiver of the current additional requirements for extended foster care services, could help address the elevated needs of our transitioning young adults in order to prevent unnecessary homelessness and exposure to this disease,” Williams wrote in an Aug. 31 letter to DeSantis.

If DeSantis doesn’t take action, she argued in the letter, young people who leave foster care could end up living in shelters or on the street, where they could be at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. They could also suffer mental health crises, she wrote.

Williams said she has not received a response from the governor. His office did not respond to a request for comment from WLRN.

Other states — including California, Illinois, Michigan and Rhode Island — have taken steps to delay the transition for foster children who are nearing adulthood as COVID-19 continues to spread.

Williams, who is the former vice mayor of Lauderdale Lakes and a member of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet, said she has taken care of more than 40 children over the last 25 years as a foster parent, a respite parent and a guardian ad litem.

“We have a crisis that we're in now. We have an economic crisis. We have a health care crisis. We have a homeless crisis. And then we have this pandemic … that is just devastating to all of us. So I know that if it's devastating to the rest of the world, what it would be like if I'm turning the age of 18 to 24, and I don't have any place to go,” she said.

Williams said if DeSantis does not act to pause the aging out process, she would introduce legislation during the 2021 state legislative session to do so.

She is up for re-election this year. After running unopposed in the primary election last month, she will face Nancy St. Clair, a candidate with no party affiliation, in the general.

“A lot of people don't understand how serious it is for 18, 19, 20-year-olds to age out of foster care. They don't have family members that they can lean on. They don't have people that they can go to, that will help them out,” Williams said.

“So we, as legislators, need to make the right decisions to let them know that you have a place that you can still call home.”

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Rep. Patricia Williams and her foster daughter Ronia.
Provided /
Rep. Patricia Williams and her foster daughter Ronia.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.