Gov. Rick Scott signed the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act Monday -- for the second time.
Scott initially signed HB 1036, which gives kids the option of staying in foster care until age 21, on June 14th, but Monday's ceremonial signing gave supporters a chance to celebrate a bill advocates call "landmark legislation."
"This is the most important bill the governor will have signed all year. It immediately impacts the lives of thousands of children and I don't see a bill that's more important than that," said Senate sponsor Detert, who attended the signing at Valencia College in Orlando with House sponsor, Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins, Florida's Advocate for Foster and Adoption Tanya Wilkins, children's advocates and current and foster care youths from all over Florida.
Along with giving young adults the option of staying in foster care, the new law requires a transition plan be made for those who are leaving the child welfare system.
“This new law will ensure kids entrusted in our care have the best start possible into adulthood and provide them the opportunity to obtain the life skills necessary so they may live the American Dream,” Scott said.
About 70 percent of teens in foster care have not graduated high school or received their GED by the time they "age out" of the system.
Detert said the new law, which restructures the Road to Independence program she created more than a decade ago, is a "safety net" for kids, providing state support for foster care youths who are still in school -- either high school (or GED), vocational education or college.
In Florida, an average of 1,290 children “aged-out” of care over the past three years, according to the bill analysis. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, gives teens the option of staying in their foster home or group home or living on their own with a stipend, though they would receive assistance in managing their money.
Most of all, the new law means kids don't have to be uprooted in high school, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First, who attended the signing with 16 members of Florida Youth Shine. "Now they can sleep on the same pillow the night after they turn 18. They don't have to be totally on their own."
Members of Florida Youth Shine, whose members are current and former foster care kids, spoke at nearly every committee meeting on the bill and visited lawmakers in their offices. their message: many teens are not ready to be on their own at 18, and often become homeless, pregnant or end up incarcerated. They shared their own stories in emotional testimonies.
Spudeas called the bill "the most important change for child welfare and children in foster care for over a decade,... It absolutely improves the lives of these kids."
Detert, R-Venice, said she will always be "eternally grateful to Sen. (Don) Gaetz" for amending the bill to name it after her. "It's a huge honor."
She said the bill was a collaboration between the House and the Senate. Democrats and Republicans, and the Department of Children and Families "all in behalf of children."
The bill also calls for foster parents to play a greater role in getting foster care youths ready for college and independence. Wilkin recently announced that the department has met its goal of recruiting 1,200 new foster parents in the past year.
Wilkins has called this bill one of two top legislative priorities for the Department this session. The other bill, which enables foster parents to make more day-to-day decisions for kids and eases regulations that bars foster kids from normal activities like sports or school trips, was signed into law by Scott on April 11.