Ready to Drive

Recently, thousands of youth got one step closer to obtaining what many consider one of the most important cards that will ever be in their wallet — a driver's license.

"Every fifteen or sixteen-year-old should be able to have a permit and it is something kids in foster care haven't been able to have," Guardian ad Litem Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz said. "This isn't about driving. It's about normalcy."

On July 1, 2014, the "Keys to Independence Act", legislation aimed at helping youth within the child welfare system attain their driver's permit and license, took effect. The Guardian ad Litem Program, which advocates for abused and neglected children throughout the state, sponsored the bill.

"Driving is a teen's life. It is exciting and the focus of most conversations," Mark Griffard, guardian ad litem volunteer said. "Our kids can't participate in that conversation. They are isolated from that."

The idea of the bill actually stems from an earlier bill aimed at taking away the stigma of being a child within the child welfare system. "Let Kids be Kids" passed in 2012 and was focused on promoting normalcy by letting foster care children be like regular kids. The law gave caregivers more power to make normal decisions, such as allowing a sleepover.

"We want them to act like reasonable prudent parents," Abramowitz said.

When reviewing the effect of the bill through surveys of providers, children, caregivers and other partners in the child welfare system, it was discovered that a common obstacle to normalcy was the inability of foster youth to get their driver's permit or license. Almost 98 percent of youth age out of the child welfare system without a driver's license.

"Everyone wanted to figure this out," Abramowitz said. He worked with elected officials, insurance lobbyists and lawyers to create a viable solution.

The bill, which was sponsored by Senator Nancy Detert and Representative Ben Albritton, had unanimous support within the legislature. On June 19, Governor Rick Scott signed it into law.

"For years, we felt like this was one area that created a hindrance and stumbling block for our kids," Deborah Moore, Circuit Director for the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program, said. "It makes me really proud that we have legislative support to fix it."

The "Keys to Independence Act" will alleviate the obstacles youth in the child welfare system face, such as driver's education costs and attaining insurance.

"Sometimes the youths are moving around so much that they can't get into a class," Abramowitz said. "Money is a big obstacle when it comes to insurance."

The bill comes with $800,000 per year in funding to assist with the costs of insurance and driver's education classes. The bill will have provisions to help youth obtain insurance and reduce liability for caregivers. It is also aimed at educating caregivers about the opportunities to get youth driving.

"It is going to remove the obstacles and burdens. That is huge," Griffard said. "It will open the door for so many youth and give them something positive."

Thomas Fair, a former foster care youth and founder of Youth Shine, knows personally how it felt to be denied the opportunity to get a license. He was only able to get a license after he turned eighteen-years-old.

"It was a goal that I had that I couldn't achieve," Fair said.

Fair, who had tried to get his license while he was still in the system, says he couldn't because he could not register for driver's education and had no one to put him under their automobile insurance so that he could drive. He was able to get his license at eighteen without ever getting his permit or going through a driver's education class.

"I was a safe driver, but I really didn't know what I was doing. I had no training, no practice," Fair said. "It was scary, not to mention my insurance was sky high."

Abramowitz has already worked to get one youth driving. Caleb's fifteenth birthday, unlike most of his friends, did not involve a trip to the driver's license office to get his permit.

"There was just so many things, so many people we had to go through. It was a mess," Caleb said.

Abramowitz, along with the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program and its local non-profit Child Advocates II, Inc. (CAII), helped Caleb overcome the obstacles. CAII provided funding for the driver's education class and other fees. Three months ago, Caleb, who is now sixteen-years-old, was able to get behind a wheel. Abramowitz took his role as an advocate and mentor a step further and became his driving partner.

"I take him out whenever I can. He drives better than my kids do," Abramowitz said. "You can see the change in him."

By assisting youth with getting their permit, it will further their independence and their job opportunities.

"It is the first step to independence and employment," David Charroin, owner of Capital City Imports, said. "It shows employers responsibility, commitment, follow through and the ability to be there."

Charroin, who has worked with former foster youth to help them achieve car ownership, believes it is important to start with the responsibility of a license.

Abramowitz hopes that within the next year many youth will take advantage of the new opportunity. His goal is to have the number of youth in foster care who have their permit and license be proportionate to that of the community as a whole. Right now the state is accepting bids from non-profits to administer the program. Caleb will be on the committee who chooses the provider.

Caleb is happy that he was able to get his piece of plastic.

"You can't be independent if you are dependent on someone for a ride," Caleb said.

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