Department of Children and Family Services officials got what they wanted this summer when Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, passed a bill setting up a panel to study raising the age of foster care eligibility from 18 to 21.

They were floored when Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, then successfully pushed a law mandating the change immediately, before the panel was even formed.

Gatti’s bill came “out of nowhere,” said DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters, speaking Wednesday in an interview during breakout sessions at a community meeting in Lafayette.

“We didn’t know anything about it,” Walters said. “We found out about it as it came across our screen.”

The effect of the two bills was to study a policy change while simultaneously putting it in motion. To do this, the department is adding more than 20 case workers and supervisors with $1 million to work with more than 120 young adults who qualify for ongoing support under the new law.

About 175 foster care recipients turn 18 every year while in state custody at contracted foster care homes, at which point foster parents were previously no longer obligated to continue supporting them. That resulted in many youth scrambling for a new place to stay in the middle of a school year, or when they were otherwise unprepared for transitioning.

The new law requires that foster care recipients older than 18 be enrolled in high school or an equivalent degree program. That means about 50 of those who “age out” every year will be ineligible for continued support under the new law, according to the department.

But the study panel is examining, among other things, the feasibility of expanding eligibility to match the requirements of Title IV-E funding, the federal program that triples local and state investments in expanding foster care eligibility to age 21.

The federal program covers a broader group than the new Louisiana law, including those in post-secondary or vocational school, job training programs, those who already have jobs and others who medically are medically impaired.

The panel’s recommendations are due Feb. 1.

Louisiana expects to qualify for the federal match dollars, which will cover the extended payments to foster parents who continue supporting youth older than 18.

Although only a subset of those turning 18 while in foster care will qualify for extended support for the time being, the department aims to allow eligible recipients who choose to discontinue support in their early adult years to re-enter if necessary, said Assistant Secretary Rhenda Hodnett.

Many who choose to strike out on their own after turning 18 find themselves in difficult circumstances with nowhere to turn, Hodnett said Wednesday after the community meeting.

“We think that’s a normal part of development for youth that age,” she said.

The informational meeting in Lafayette was the first of nine department officials plan conduct around the state through the end of September.

Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.