Foster kids don't have to go it alone after 18

In the state's eye, they are legal adults, but most need help to learn how to live independently.

Published April 12, 2007

On their 18th birthdays, foster children are on their own, the law says.

Kids who were abused, neglected or abandoned, who are sent to foster homes, often end up on welfare rolls or homeless after they reach legal adulthood.

"One little girl I saw recently, she's been in 20-something foster homes in 13 years," says Circuit Judge Linda Babb, who hears Pasco County dependency cases. "These kids move around so much that their stuff is literally in a Hefty bag."

But now, they no longer have to go it alone, thanks to a county program that prepares them to live independently.

"We want these teenagers to know where they're going to be living the day after their 18th birthday, the hour after their 18th birthday," says Wanda Davis, who shepherds the teen independent living transitions program in Pasco County.

"They need to have some idea of what they're going to be doing. We don't want them to go from the dependency system (foster care) to homelessness."

Davis is an attorney for the guardian ad litem program, which provides volunteer advocates to speak for abused and neglected children in dependency proceedings. She also serves as volunteer guardian ad litem for 72 teenagers.

By statute, the Florida Legislature mandates independent living transition services for foster teens. In July, the guardian ad litem program began providing the services in the 6th Judicial Circuit, which includes Pasco and Pinellas counties.

The guardian ad litem program works with Safe Children Coalition, which oversees foster care in the two counties through a contract with the state's Department of Children and Families.

The transition program starts tracking the kids when they turn 13 and assesses them again at age 14.

The guardian ad litems ask the kids what they want to do when they grow up.

"If they say that they want to go to culinary school, are they taking the prerequisites for getting into culinary school?" Davis said. "Have they visited some of the culinary schools? We want to make sure that they get those field trips."

The children receive training in life skills, Davis said. They are taught how to pay bills and maintain checking accounts. They learn shopping, nutrition and cooking skills, hygiene and housecleaning skills, and parenting skills.

"They need to know where they're headed in life," she emphasized. "Do they want to go into the military? Do they want to go to vocational school? To a two-year college, or a four-year college? How do they get there?"

That support might take the form scholarships or college tuition waivers. It might be some type of transitional service or money available so they won't be homeless before they get their first jobs.

The volunteers make sure the kids have taken SATs, applied to college or signed up for a dorm.

"There are just a whole host of things that they're going to have to deal (with) when they turn 18. That's what we're trying to prepare them for.

"We want to make sure that they know about the support system that's going to be out there for them, not only before they turn 18, but also after they turn 18," Davis said.

Fast Facts:

To help

To volunteer for the Pasco County guardian ad litem program or its transition program for teens, call Jodi Bixler at (352) 521-5178 or (727) 834-3493.