State legislators voted Thursday unanimously in favor of making a three-year pilot project called “Keys to Independence” — begun in 2014 and intended to aid eligible teens in the state foster care system attain driver’s licenses and overcome associated hurdles — permanent, bringing them on par with their peer group.
Autonomy is what most teenagers crave — driving is a key to that freedom and competitive edge.
In previous decades, adolescents under the custody of the state of Florida faced obstacles to attaining liberties often taken for granted and afforded to their same-aged friends in school, church, work and sports programs. Driver’s education, typically offered in high school, doesn’t mean much to a young person if they don’t have the ability to sustain the framework inherently associated with car ownership — insurance, for one, is a major obstacle.
The path to acquiring a driver’s license itself can often be more complicated for teens in the foster care system.
“Prior to getting my license I never had the chance to get the experience to learn how to drive because I switched high schools in my senior year and the driver’s ed program was full in the school I enrolled in,” Thomas Fair, co-founder and former president of Florida Youth Shine, told state legislators on the Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee in Tallahassee Thursday. “In foster care, my dream was to be able to drive.”
After the hearing, Florida Politics spoke with Fair, 26, who said that often foster parents can’t afford to add their foster children to their car insurance policies because of the increase in the rates. Additionally, Fair said, youth in foster care can sometimes run afoul of the law while driving without a license, ensnaring them in ongoing legal problems preventing from acquiring driver’s privileges for years.
“I’ve talked with other young men, who have aged out of foster care, that still don’t have a license because the opportunity to get the proper education to begin with,” he said by telephone from Tallahassee.
The law would now ensure those in foster care would be able to get into driver’s ed classes, even if they’re full. Additionally, young people aged 15-21 in licensed out-of-home care may be reimbursed for fees associated with obtaining their license, such as learner license fees, driver’s license fees, testing fees, substance abuse courses and with monthly insurance premiums and deductibles, according to an analysis of the bill issued Tuesday.
The bill — known as HB 217 — was co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Ben Albritton of Wauchula and Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora.
The meeting Thursday of the subcommittee was chaired by Stuart Republican Rep. Gayle Harrell.
“We want our youth to finish the program and move forward to become successful, independent individuals,” Harrell noted before the bill’s vote.
The Keys to Independence program has gone nationwide, with Florida the first state to support the project.