A new law giving young adults in foster care the option of staying until age 21 is slated to go into effect Jan. 1. But it's getting considerable pushback from the community-based care organizations that oversee foster care, with the organizations saying it amounts to an unfunded mandate that they can't afford to implement properly.
The state's 19 community-based care organizations, which are responsible for services to foster children, foster parents and group foster homes, are set to release a report showing the tab for the new law (SB 1036) will be much higher than lawmakers believed when the measure passed in the spring.
"It's tens of millions of dollars per year in additional expense to the system," Mike Watkins, CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, said of an earlier projection by the Florida Department of Children and Families that extending foster care from ages 18 to 21 would not increase costs.
"It's apparent to us as practitioners that there's a major disconnect between the department's fiscal impact being zero and the realities of us trying to provide the services that are required under the law," Watkins said.
A five-year fiscal analysis commissioned by the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the privatized community-based care organizations, known as CBCs, is currently in draft form.
But the bill's sponsor -- for whom the Senate named it the "Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act" -- said the CBCs never objected when the law was being drafted.
"If they're waving a red flag and saying the sky is falling, why didn't they say this last year?" asked the Venice Republican, known as a champion of foster kids. "We never heard from them -- no legislative changes, no glitch bill."
Watkins said he supports the bill's intent and Detert's leadership, but extending foster youths' eligibility by three years is an additional expense "by its very definition."
"It's additional resources required," he said. "Any savings that were contemplated under the bill would be dwarfed by the requirement in the new law."
The law will allow young people to stay in foster care if they are completing high-school, postsecondary or vocational educations, participating in job-training programs, working at least 80 hours per month, or are unable to participate due to disabilities.
In its march to passage, the measure lost just one lawmaker's vote, and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law in June. The bill analysis concluded that it wouldn't cost more, basically, because youths who age out of foster care often end up homeless, jobless or in jail.
According to the Childrens Home Society, 33 percent of youths aging out of foster care will be homeless within three years and 25 percent of the males will end up behind bars. Just 30 percent will have graduated from high school by 18, said Christina Spudeas of the advocacy group Florida's Children First.
An average of 1,290 children per year aged out of foster care in Florida over the past three years, according to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
In recent years, Florida has reduced the number of children in state care by putting more emphasis on adoptions and on family reunification services to keep children safely in their homes. According to DCF, the community-based care organizations served 47,520 children in fiscal year 2003-04, while in 2011-12, the number was 32,853.
"They've reduced kids in care by 30 percent, so why doesn't their budget go down?" Detert demanded of the CBCs.
She said she remains committed to implementing the law as it stands, and if the CBCs "have improvements, we'll be happy to look at them."
Watkins said he was also worried that DCF wasn't asking the Legislature for more money to implement the foster-care extension, nor had it approved rules putting the law into department policy.
"We have an unfunded mandate for (the) current year with no rules promulgated and high expectations from our stakeholders and from our kids to meet the requirements of the new law," he said. "I'm very concerned that the department has not identified this as the highest priority funding issue for 2014-15 in their budget request."
DCF spokeswoman Alexis Lambert said in an email that the department has held a workshop on the proposed new rule that will govern extended foster care and has a revised draft for publication.
"We anticipate that the public hearing on the revised rule will take place in early January," she said. "The department has had numerous meetings with advocates, CBCs and independent living service providers and case coordinators. To provide policy guidance and in response to several of their recommendations, the department will be issuing a memo next month."
Lambert also said DCF is devising a protocol "for immediate guidance to assist CBCs upon the law taking effect Jan. 1 and throughout that first month, especially."
According to DCF, an estimated 62 youths will become eligible for extended foster care upon turning 18 in January.