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Pinellas County
State law improves foster care system
New legislation allows teens to stay in foster care longer
Article published on Monday, Dec. 30, 2013
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Photo by JULIANA A. TORRES
Laurallyn Segur, director of licensing and recruitment for Eckerd Community Alternatives, hugs Shadai Simmons, a former foster youth currently working as an advocate and resource for teenagers like she used to be, at Eckerd’s offices in Largo. New Florida legislation means that teenagers won’t be forced out of foster care at 18, but instead have the option of continual support until they are 21.
LARGO – Up until this week, youth aging out of the Florida foster care system faced a rude awakening on their 18th birthday.

On the very day of becoming legally recognized adults, teenagers would have to leave their placement with a foster family or group home. Independent living counselors would help them set up a budget, outline their bills and help them move into an independent life. Many make the transition in the middle of their senior year of high school. At age 18, it didn’t matter if they were ready or mature enough to handle the responsibilities of being an adult.

They didn’t have a choice; aging out of foster care, while filled with resources to help, was a point of no return.

That is, until recently. As of Jan. 1, new state legislation allows youth to remain in foster care until age 21, if they choose. Any young adults who aged out in the last few years can return and receive the additional support they may desperately need.

Florida’s Independent Living bill, signed into law in June, is a necessary improvement to the foster care system, said Shalondra Young, independent living program manager for Eckerd Community Alternatives. It creates a smoother transition out of foster care.

“It also allows for those young adults who are still in high school to continue their high school education without having to be out on their own and manage bills and pay rent and all those other things that come along with becoming an adult,” she said.

Eckerd Community Alternatives – the lead agency for child welfare services in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties – has been preparing for the implementation of the new bill. Young has been the local lead in that process, ensuring that the local foster care system is prepared to make the transition. Eckerd has contracted with the Clearwater-based nonprofit Camelot Community Care to provide the additional services to youth ages 18 to 21.

“Locally, we did that in an effort to not increase our current case load, but to allow those that have history and have working with this population to continue to work with them, just in a different aspect,” Young explained.

She’s also been working to educate Eckerd’s partners and anyone in the community who works with former foster youth and can inform them of their new rights. The new legislation provides a safety net for young adults, even if they don’t immediately recognize the need for it.

“A lot of these kids, they can’t wait to leave foster care, because they don’t want people to tell them what to do,” explained Shadai Simmons, a youth specialist with Ready for Life and a former foster teenager. “It’s usually around 19 or 20 that they realize, ‘God, I need help.’”

Simmons, 22, and the other Ready for Life board members prepared a skit to help explain how quickly a teenager’s independent life can fall apart without the support of a family. During a seminar Oct. 18 designed to help community partners understand the new bill, the young adults acted out how so-called friends and a lack of elderly guidance quickly left a newly aged-out foster teen homeless.

Even at 18, there are lessons teenagers haven’t learned yet, especially if their families were less than supportive. Simmons was already a crack cocaine addict when her mom disappeared, leaving her to the foster care system at age 17. Within a year, she found stability, acceptance and love at a group home.

“It was a blessing for me,” she said. “I was running from everything that I was already dealing with in life. I didn’t want to run no more.”

After living on the streets basically on her own, Simmons was beginning to feel like a kid again. There was much she didn’t know about responsibility and stability when she aged out of foster care at 18.

“I didn’t know how to set up my first bank account; my case worker had to help me do that,” she said. “I didn’t know how to apply for food stamps. I was devastated to find out that I had to pay a first deposit on my apartment.”

And it was more than practical support that young Simmons wanted.

“When I got my GED, it was really big, but no one else felt that way, because I didn’t have anyone to support me and say ‘congratulations’ and pat me on the back,” she said.

After working two years to earn her GED, Simmons didn’t know that she could walk in a graduation ceremony to celebrate the feat. She had no one to cheer for her anyway.

“When I got it, it was just like, ‘Yay.’ I celebrated by myself,” she said.

Simmons now works for Ready for Life, the nonprofit organization that came alongside her with resources and support to start her new life. Partnered with Eckerd, Ready for Life and Camelot Community Care offer independent living services and counselors for foster youth who have aged out.

But that’s not the same as a family, who can provide young adults 24-7 structure and support, said Laurallyn Segur, Eckerd’s director of licensing and recruitment.

“They need to have the hug of mom and the love of a father or the support of a family behind them,” she said. “They deserve to have family. That’s what they want.”

Eckerd Community Alternatives is always looking for new foster parents, but especially hope to recruit families with a heart for teenagers and young adults, given the new legislation. Older foster youth don’t need constant supervision, but rather a mentor, a place to call home when they’re on holiday or summer break from college and a place to do laundry on the weekends.

“Normal things that normal teenagers want,” Segur said.

Eckerd’s goal is to place children under their care in the least disruptive and least restrictive environment. More foster parents mean that children who come into foster care at age 16 or 17 will more likely be placed with a foster parent, which usually is more ideal than a residential group care setting, Young said.

“That foster parent can help them transition out, whether it’s at 18, 19 or 20 … (and) can be a long-term connection that we want to build with our young adults,” she said.

The ongoing family relationship is a big reason why Florida Youth Shine, made up of current and former foster youth, pushed legislators for the Independent Living bill. The statewide group was one of the motivating factors behind the legislation being passed, Young said.

Local Florida Youth Shine chapters meet on a monthly basis to discuss the best ways to advocate for the rights of youth in currently in foster care and those who have aged out.

“They do that through telling their stories,” Young said. “They make sure there’s a community-wide knowledge of our foster care system: some of the trials and some of the triumphs that our youth have been through and that they have overcome.”

Simmons, recently a member of Florida Youth Shine, is an example of the voice the organization provides. Along with her work helping foster teenagers find the support they need through Ready for Life, Simmons helps represent foster children to the staff at Eckerd, Segur explained.

“I feel like I give back, because I can speak for those youth that aren’t presently there, who can’t speak for themselves,” Simmons said. “We’re pretty much their voice.”

She agrees that the new legislation is important, even if it just allows 18-year-olds to stay in their current homes until they’re ready to get out on their own. And she wants foster youth who will age out to have the parental figure she wasn’t able to rely on.

“I think it’s very important to be able to even to call up old foster parents, and say, ‘I need help,’” she said.

To learn how to become a foster parent, call the Eckerd Community Alternatives recruitment line at 866-233-0790.

Foster parent candidates must:

• Be at least 21 years old

• Have appropriate housing

• Be able to pass a background screening

• Complete a home study and 36 hours of special training

• Have adequate space and be able to provide for their own existing family

Although foster parents will receive financial assistance to help care for the child, they cannot rely on this to pay their own bills. Foster parents can be single or married, have a family or be an empty-nester. Call 866-233-0790.
Article published on Monday, Dec. 30, 2013
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