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Tampa Bay foster care workers, advocates celebrate a new law to aid students and caregivers

college students sitting around a table with notebooks and they are smiling
Jacob Ammentorp Lund/Jacob Lund - stock.adobe.com
More kids with experience in Florida's foster care system will be eligible for higher education waivers under a new law Gov. DeSantis signed this week.

The law boosts payments for family and friends who take in kids and expands tuition waivers for higher education to include more young people who spent time in the system.

The lead child welfare agency in Pasco and Pinellas counties says a new law Gov. DeSantis signed this week could help address a shortage of foster care homes in the region.

The law increases payments for relatives and family friends who care for kids when their parents can't.

Family Support Services says they prioritize placing children with kin.

"Because the research shows us that these placements tend to be more stable, allow the child to remain connected to their family and culture, and result in faster permanency," Jenn Petion, the agency's president and CEO, said in a statement.

A lot of times, even if relatives and family friends want to take in the kids, they can't afford to. Now that the law raises payments for these caregivers to the same rate as licensed foster parents, the Petion hopes more will commit to help.

"Not only is placement with relatives and non-relatives best for the child, but when children are placed with relatives instead of in a traditional foster home, it helps to expand capacity of traditional foster homes for those placements that do not have relative or non-relative caregivers available to step in," she said.

The law also includes a monthly subsidy to help caregivers of young children offset the cost of early learning programs.

Helping older kids with higher education

Teenagers and young adults can also benefit from the legislation.

It expands tuition waivers for workforce education programs, or Florida colleges and universities to more students with experience in the child welfare system.

Previously, only students who were still in the system until they turned 18 or entered college were eligible for free tuition.

But young people who are eventually reunified with their families or adopted could still face significant challenges to getting an education, according to Joseph Contes, who oversees a program at the University of South Florida that supports students who have spent time in foster care, called USF Pearls.

"This will expand it [tuition waivers] to these students who spent a majority of time in the system for multiple years, experiencing multiple moves, experiencing these same traumas to access these benefits," said Contes.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, kids in foster care are less likely to attend or graduate from college. Research also shows moving a child from one placement to another can also result in the loss of months worth of education.

Contes said the law is a "move in the right direction" to addressing the challenges young people face in the system.

Students will also get a boost to a stipend meant to help young people coming out of foster care pay for things like housing and meals, thanks to a separate law signed by DeSantis.

A provision in a law focused on supporting involved fatherhood would increase that stipend students in higher education programs receive from $1,256 a month to $1,720.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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