Louisiana started a modest expansion of the foster care program last month, paying for students to finish high school, rather than immediately cutting off aid when a child turns 18. Now, state officials want to find a way to care for all foster children until they turn 21.
The sticking point is the financing.
Lawmakers came up with $1 million in the current budget year to continue paying for foster children to reach high school graduation or age 21, whichever happens first.
Financing for the proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Ryan Gatti was a surprise, initially seeming like a long-shot amid difficult tax negotiations to stave off deep cuts across state government. But lawmakers included the limited foster care expansion in the tax deal they struck. That money coupled with $2.9 million in federal financing to cover the expansion costs.
Paying for housing, educational assistance and other services for all foster children until age 21 would carry a larger price tag. Federal funds are available, but would require a state match.
Supporters say Louisiana shouldn't abandon the children in its care when they turn 18 or complete high school. They say those teenagers often end up homeless or in poor housing situations, struggling to find ways to support themselves with little aid.
"Foster children are in the state's custody. In a very, very real way, they are our children," said Gov. John Bel Edwards. After the children turn 18 "they continue to deserve someone in their corner," he said.
The Democratic governor spoke Friday as a legislatively backed panel launched work to design a program that would extend the foster care age, including estimates of how much each piece of the initiative would cost. A report is due to lawmakers, who would have to approve such an expansion, in February.
About 175 youth "age out" of the foster care system each year in Louisiana when they turn 18, according to the state Department of Children and Family Services.
Sen. Regina Barrow, the Baton Rouge Democrat whose legislation created the study group, said she was confident Louisiana would find a way to "take care of our children," noting state lawmakers financed Gatti's proposal even in a tough budget and tax negotiation.
Barrow's legislation says about 25 other states have extended foster care services beyond age 18.
"How could we just push them off this cliff after age 18? Nothing special happens at 18," said Gatti, of Bossier City, getting emotional as he spoke.
He joked that his daughter will celebrate her 18th birthday in January, when she's in the middle of her senior year in high school, and "she can barely find her way out of our driveway."