The Third DCA ruled against our clinic yesterday, holding that access to federal Education and Training Vouchers (ETV) could be restricted by the State through the creation of programs with additional eligibility rules. While I disagree with the reasoning of the Court, I’m writing here about the original source of injustice in this case.
Our clinic was retained by an amazing young woman who needed help during her Independent Living years. From the opinion:
Cormier was born on November 11, 1995. She lived in the Bahamas with her mother until she was fourteen years old and then moved to Florida to live with her father. On October 2, 2013, DCF removed Cormier from her father’s care due to alleged physical abuse and domestic violence, and thereafter, she entered the dependency court system. Cormier was sheltered briefly and then placed into the temporary custody of a non-relative caregiver, where she remained for approximately six weeks before turning eighteen. As the hearing on the petition for dependency was scheduled for a date after Cormier turned eighteen, the hearing was never conducted and the dependency case was closed.
Independent Living benefits provide case management support and financial resources to kids aging out of the foster care system to help them be successful, and to help them avoid homelessness, criminal justice involvement, and the host of other bad outcomes that statistics show foster kids endure. The IL Program has various sub-programs with differing eligibility criteria. The most liberal program is the Extended Foster Care Program, which only requires a young person to age out of care in a licensed placement and participate in school, work, or similar activities. The Post-secondary Education Support Services (PESS) program is the most restrictive — it requires a young person to be adjudicated dependent, age out of licensed foster care, have been in foster care for at least 6 months, and maintain good academic standing in college or vocational school.
Knowing these criteria, certain facts about our client’s case stand out: Her placement in a unlicensed placement made her ineligible for any IL Program even though that decision is largely not up to the child. Statewide, the Department is relying more heavily on unlicensed non-relative placements largely due to the lack of licensed foster placements. In November 2013 when our client aged out, only about 8.6% of children under DCF supervision were placed with non-relatives. In March 2017, that had risen to 11.93% — that’s 8,623 kids who will not be eligible for IL support if they age out.
The fact that her case closed without an adjudication means she would not have been eligible for PESS even if she were in a licensed placement for 6 months. Cases shouldn’t take 6 months to adjudicate, you say? They can if they go on appeal. And the Florida Supreme Court ruled in O.I.C.L. that the appeal of a child who ages out of care is moot. It would not have been moot to this young woman, who is striving to be successful with all of the history and none of the support given to a narrow group of foster kids. Nine-thousand kids in non-relative placements and an unknowable number of kids whose cases languish in the courts will be in her shoes soon.