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

Photo: Gabe Pierce
Photo: Gabe Pierce

It’s hard enough to age out of foster care in normal times. It’s that much more challenging during the twin health and economic crises of COVID-19. That’s why state Representative Patricia Williams is asking the governor to pause that process for now — and let young people stay in foster care longer.

Typically, foster children in Florida are released from state custody when they turn 18, but they also have the option to stay in the system until they're 21. Williams is a foster parent herself, and she thinks right now, young adults leaving foster care need extra help through age 24. She recently spoke with WLRN’s Jessica Bakeman about her proposal.

How did this problem come to your attention — that young people are struggling with the transition of aging out of foster care during this pandemic? WILLIAMS: I have been a foster parent for over 25 years. I have had over 40-something kids in and out of my home itself. And I understand children, young adults — they're not as equipped as we would think to deal with certain crises in their lives at the age of 18. I know when I was 18, I wasn't ready for life. I thought I knew, but I didn't. And that's the same thing, which is the way kids are now. 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, [coronavirus], 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. Do you have a foster child in your care right now? My last, quote unquote, foster child, her name is Ronia. She has been with me since she was twelve years old. She turned 18 in November of last year. But 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. As your state legislator, it’s my job to reach back and pull forward and help those that’s in need. And I think the foster care system, at the age of 18 to 24, we need major assistance to help young people be ready for the next level in life. So can you explain what you're asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to do specifically? Extend the time that they can stay in the foster care system without being put out on the streets to fend for themselves. And how long would you like to see this change last? This pause in letting young people age out of foster care, since we don't know how long the pandemic will last and you know, the economic impacts of it will likely continue for a long time after. We don't know the time period that it’s going to actually stop, the pandemic. We have no idea when the jobs is going to be out there for the kids. We can’t just say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna give it two days,’ and then, the third day, we have a major crisis. So you argued in your letter to Gov. DeSantis that if he doesn't do something, people aging out of foster care could contribute to further spread of COVID-19. Can you explain how? If you don't have a place to stay, you're going to find anywhere that you can hang out, anywhere you can just rest your head for a second. And if you’re around a whole lot of people, you're not doing social distancing. If you're around people that have the COVID, you're going to catch it. And that's just going to create a domino effect. It's just going to keep going on and on to the next person. So if we can keep these kids somewhere safe, in the home that they are already in, they’re already assigned to, that’s the right thing to do. Okay, and do you know how much this proposal would cost? No, I don't know how much it will cost. But there's no dollar amount that we can add on to keeping someone safe and out of harm's way. And if the governor doesn't act on this before the legislative session, is this something that maybe you'll pursue in terms of legislation? Yes, I will. It’s shining a light on this darkness. 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. 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. That was state Representative Patricia Williams, a Democrat from Pompano Beach, speaking with WLRN’s Jessica Bakeman. Williams said Gov. DeSantis hasn’t replied to her letter yet, and his office didn’t respond to our request for comment. Other states have taken steps like what Williams is proposing — to help young people who are aging out of foster care during the pandemic — including California, Illinois and Michigan. Listen to the full interview by clicking on the clip at the top of the page. 

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter and fill-in host at WMFE.