In a predominately rural area with limited public transportation, driving in North Central Florida tends to be seen as a necessity and not just a privilege.
For youth in foster care, obtaining a driver’s license is not an opportunity that many have due to concerns over potential liability and the cost of insurance for foster parents, said Jenn Petion, the director of community and government relations for Partnership for Strong Families.
The Florida Legislature is currently reviewing two bills to help remove these obstacles. House Bill 977 and Senate Bill 744 will help provide motor vehicle insurance and driver’s education for children in foster care.
Partnership for Strong Families provides child welfare and related services to 13 counties. At any time, there are about 150 children in licensed foster care in North Central Florida.
A survey of 930 foster children conducted by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in 2013 revealed only 88 of the children between the ages of 15 and 17 had a learners permit. Only 20 of the 687 who were old enough to drive had obtained a license.
For Monna Anderson, an 18-year-old foster child from Brooker, Fla., a driver’s license would mean being able to start her own life.
She said she re-entered foster care when she was 16 and did not have the financial means to get a permit or a license.
Without a license, Anderson said she is forced to depend on other people to drive the 45 minutes to Santa Fe College for her classes or if she has anywhere else to go. She also said it is difficult to earn enough money to move out of her foster home without a dependable way to get to a job.
“Everything that I do has to work around her schedule,” she said in regard to her foster mom providing Anderson’s main transportation.
Paul Crawford, the 8th judicial circuit director for the Guardian ad Litem program, said having a teenager on an insurance plan can be expensive. Motor vehicle insurance is estimated to cost about $2,000 per year, according to the Senate’s version of the bill.
Foster children are often moved from one area to another, which can make it difficult for students to get into school-offered driver’s education courses, Crawford said.
The legislation proposed by Republican Sen. Nancy Detert in the Senate and Republican Rep. Ben Albritton in the House attempts to address and get rid of these barriers.
“Foster kids need a consistent, dedicated champion in the (Fla.) House,” Albritton wrote in an email. “I for one choose to stand in the gap for them.”
Both bills call for the DCF to establish a statewide three-year pilot program that would pay the costs of driver education, licensure and motor vehicle insurance for those foster children who complete a driver’s education program.
The legislation would also require schools to give priority to foster children under DCF care when registering for driver’s education courses.
Albritton’s proposed House bill estimates cost at about $1.5 million, while the Senate bill seeks about $800,000 in funds.
“We will accept whatever appropriation will allow these kids to have the (driver’s license) in their hands and experience that normal right of passage,” Albritton said. “The fight is about principle, not the dollar amount.”
Minors cannot purchase their own motor vehicle insurance unless a court order removes their disability of nonage.
“A circuit court has jurisdiction to remove the disabilities of nonage of a minor age 16 or older residing in this state upon a petition filed by the minor’s natural or legal guardian or, if there is none, by a guardian ad litem,” according to Florida Statute 743.015.
This disability places legal restrictions on minors. If the court order is granted, the minor gains the same rights and responsibilities as an adult.
In bigger cities, where public transportation is readily available, this legislation might not mean as much, Petion said. However, she said for the more rural communities throughout North Central Florida this legislation would be a great benefit.
Petion and Crawford said this is about more than removing the barriers of liability and insurance costs.
“Our kids are normal kids,” Petion said. “They should be allowed to do normal teen activities and driving has become one of those things.”