A set of bills that would use BP oil spill reparations to extend foster care from 18 years to 21 years of age advanced Monday to the full state Senate.
Senate Bill 129 by Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, would allow teenagers to remain in foster care until they graduate high school or turn 21 years old, whichever comes first. Gatti said the extension would provide adolescents in foster care with a stable support system to ensure they’re adequately prepared to live independently.
Gatti’s bill was first shelved in the Senate Finance Committee due to concerns over its roughly $961,000 general fund price tag.
But SB129 was brought back up when Senate Finance Chair Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, tied an amendment to his Senate Bill 555 to use securitized revenue from the BP disaster settlement to fund the program.
LaFleur’s bill would take nearly $1 million from the front end of the revenue stream before funneling the remainder into several trust funds and transportation projects. Both measures passed out of committee with amendments and moved to the full Senate for consideration.
Department of Children and Family Services Undersecretary Eric Horent said extending the program would allow the state to access federal match dollars to fund the majority of the program. The nearly $1 million state contribution would cover 25 percent of the program, while federal funding would cover the remaining $2.8 million, he said.
LaFleur brought the amendment as senators bemoaned leaving the program unfunded. The committee has foregone advancing bills with fiscal notes in light of the fiscal cliff, but Gatti’s legislation and emotional testimony from foster children and parents struck a chord with lawmakers.
“If there’s any one measure that we might create an exception for or take extraordinary means, this might be the one,” LaFleur said on Gatti’s bill.
Not all 18-year-olds exiting foster care are prepared for financial, medical and legal independence, Gatti said. Many have been shuffled between foster homes and are behind in school, and the loss of stable housing and emotional support prior to graduation could prevent the teenagers from finishing school, he said.
Seventeen-year-old Ella, a cheerleader and foster child, said she’ll age out of foster care in October, but despite extra classes she won’t graduate high school until 2019. She said she entered care as a failing freshman a year behind her peers, but has risen to earn A's and B's in her classes and wants to continue pursuing her education.
Ella entered foster care in 2016 after her mother was unable to house and support Ella and her sister. The teenager said she felt torn between assisting her mother and supporting herself.
“In six months I’ll be 18. Do I choose me or my mom? I want so badly to graduate and go to college, but I am so scared to make the wrong choice,” Ella said. “I am not ready to age out. I am not ready to choose between these two lives. I am not ready to give up or move on.”
“Increasing the age of youth exiting the system will give kids like me a little bit longer to finish school and grow a little longer,” she said. “It will give us a chance to find our place in the world without the burden of choosing between what we have and what we’ve left behind.”
Many adolescents who age out of the system fall prey to crime, prostitution, human trafficking and transient lifestyles. National surveys show about 20 percent of former foster youth end up incarcerated and about 25 percent become homeless, Gatti said. Each year about 140 to 180 foster children in Louisiana age out before graduating high school.
While funding new programs is difficult in today’s budget climate, the bill’s fiscal note doesn’t take into account the cost of not doing something, Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said. The potential alternatives of jail and homelessness could cost the state more in the long run than investing in foster children’s education today, she said.
In his closing statements, Gatti related the funding decision to the state’s flag and its representation of Louisiana’s mission to serve the poorest among us through sacrifice.
“The least we can do is pluck some feathers where it hurts and feed these babies what they need,” he said.