DAVIE — Shamane Kirkland travelled to Tallahassee in March to testify before the Florida House of Representatives’ Healthy Families Subcommittee.
It was the kind of trip that a social worker lobbying for child welfare reform or adoption matters would make to sway politicians toward her cause.
But Shamane, who lives in Davie, is not a social worker or a lobbyist. She is a 17-year-old sophomore at Weston High School.
Shamane traveled to the state capital as a volunteer member of Florida Youth SHINE (Striving High for Independence and Empowerment), a youth organization that advocates for improvements to the state’s child welfare system.
During the subcommittee hearing two months ago, Shamane asked state representatives to consider approving a proposed bill that would allow foster youths to remain in foster care until age 21.
The bill that Shamane lobbied for—the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act, named for the representative who sponsored it—passed the state Senate unanimously with a vote 38-0 on April 26, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. On May 1, it became law after it passed the state House of Representatives with a vote of 116-1.
Backed by the Florida Department of Children and Families, the measure will give young adults the option to remain in foster care three additional years so they can finish high school, earn a GED, enroll in college or find a job.
Thanks to the bill, Shamane will be able to remain in the care of her foster mother, Diana Lake, until she’s in college.
“She told me I could stay” regardless of the outcome, Shamane said.
Other foster youths, such as fellow Florida Youth SHINE volunteer Felix Beabrice, 18, are not as lucky.
Felix aged out of foster care last September when he turned 18 and had to move out of his foster family’s home and strike it out on his own.
“A part of me wanted to stay home but I wasn’t able to, so I was disappointed,” said Felix, who now shares an apartment with his elder brother in Davie. “But I looked forward to being independent.”
Thanks to a scholarship from Florida Youth SHINE, Felix is taking college prep classes at the Fort Lauderdale Independence Training & Education Center, or FLITE School. The FLITE School, run by the Junior League of Greater Fort Lauderdale, helps foster youths such as Felix transition out of foster care into adulthood by teaching them personal finance and parenting skills, as well as helping them find jobs and enroll in colleges and universities.
Felix, who attended South Broward High and plans on studying business management at Broward College, would have liked the continued support and comfort of a foster family until he turns 21 but, he said, “I’m proud of myself because I’ve been able to find out what adult life is like.”
Besides extending the foster care age limit, the independent living bill also seeks to strengthen the role of foster parents and restructure existing transitional programs for foster youths.
Kadie Black, external affairs manager at OurKids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, said she’s seen many older youths struggle in their transition out of foster care.
“Many children aren’t ready to go into the world as an adult when they turn 18,” she said. “Every child is unique and OurKids and our providers have always recognized this and we’ve had individualized transition plans as they age out of foster care.”
However, Black explained, the benefit of the new law is now they can provide more intensive services and housing options for youth who choose to stay in foster care until they turn 21.
Black said the bill also serves as an excellent recruitment tool for adults looking to become foster parents who may want to continue guiding their foster children as they mature into young adults.
“This bill gives those parents that incentive,” Black said. Foster youths “can stay in supportive housing until things pan out. You don’t want these kids to feel like they’re 18 without support.”
Gov. Rick Scott has 15 days to sign the bill into law.