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State may cut money for helping foster children make transition to adulthood

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Old March 25th 04, 04:48 PM
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Default State may cut money for helping foster children make transition to adulthood

State may cut money for helping foster children make transition to

By Megan O'Matz
Staff Writer
Posted March 24 2004

Florida's child welfare administrators are working with legislators to
slash the living stipend older foster children receive to pay for
housing, food and utilities once they turn 18, in a bid to cut costs
in a $15.6 million program that state officials say is running out of

Called the "Road to Independence," the program is considered a
lifeline to young adults who, with no family to call their own, are
pushed into the street with little more than the comfort of an $892
check the state sends each month for staying in school full time and
maintaining a C average.

Critics have long dubbed the initiative the "Road to Homelessness,"
arguing the sum is too paltry to live on, especially in South Florida,
and that many foster children do not even qualify for it because of
mental illness, learning disabilities and other deprivations that
leave them far behind in their education.

Now, two proposals winding through the Legislature with input and
support from the Department of Children & Families recommend that the
stipends be reduced even further. Senate Bill 512, sponsored by state
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, recommends cutting the awards to
$654 a month for those who turn 18 but need more time to complete
their high school careers. Those pursuing college degrees would see
their checks dip to $624.

The bill gives DCF wide latitude to provide the teens with even less
than that, based on a review of the youth's living expenses and income
from other sources, such as Pell Grants, scholarships and other

DCF could also, when funds diminish, halt payments all together and
create waiting lists for the program.

A similar proposal is making its way through the House Future of
Florida's Families Committee.

The plans already are drawing outrage from children's advocates.

"These kids can barely survive on the current $892," said attorney
Carolyn Salisbury of the University of Miami's Children & Youth Law
Clinic. "We have clients who every day are trying to stretch their
dollars as far as they can, making choices about whether to pay the
rent or utility bill or to eat. If you then slash their scholarships
by close to $300, these kids are not going to be able to survive on
their own anymore."

DCF officials say they have little choice but to make changes in a
program they say is so successful it is breaking the bank. The
department projects a $3.6 million shortfall by July in the program,
which is comprised mostly of federal funds.

To stop the hemorrhaging, DCF is enrolling new youths for the
assistance only on a "hardship" basis in areas of the state where the
shortfall is most acute.

Asked whether those who are denied hardship assistance would be added
to a waiting list, DCF Child Welfare Director Beth Englander said:
"There is not a waiting list. We're not implementing one." Instead,
Englander said she did not believe any hardship case would be

She could not project how many children may be requesting hardship
assistance. In February, 944 youths were enrolled in the program, she

Englander declined to discuss the pending legislation, saying she had
a meeting to attend and could not continue the interview. DCF did not
make anyone else available for comment. Sen. Lynn could not be

Other legislators said DCF officials have met with House and Senate
staff in crafting the two proposals.

"The department has had tremendous input into what's in here," state
Rep. Nan Rich, D-Weston, said of the working version of the House
bill, now labeled "Proposed Committee Bill 0404." Four top DCF
officials attended the House committee's workshop on the bill Monday

Rich, a member of the committee, has insisted that DCF provide an
audit of how the program arrived at a $3.6 million deficit.

Also upsetting to her and other children's advocates: The bill halts
the year-round open enrollment and sets up two 30-day periods, meaning
if a kid misses the window, he or she is out of luck for a while.

"I have to tell you, I'm heartbroken," state Rep. Yolly Roberson,
D-Miami, said of the DCF-backed legislation. Department officials told
Roberson her rival proposal to provide Medicaid coverage to former
foster children for several years was too expensive.

"We owe these children," she said. "They are in the situation they are
in right now because we did not, as a state, do as we were supposed to
do for them. This is the last chance they have to become productive
adults in the community. And yet we're failing them once again."

Defend your civil liberties! Get information at http://www.aclu.org, become a member at http://www.aclu.org/join and get active at http://www.aclu.org/action.

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