Former foster child Georgina Rodriguez is pursuing her associate’s degree at Hillsborough Community College and plans to continue her college education after that. This is possible, in part, because one of her six sets of foster parents broke the rules when she was in their care.
Rodriguez, now 21, was in the Florida dependency court system from age 6 to 18 due to an abusive home situation.
“Foster parents were not supposed to, but my foster parents in Plant City took me out on their boat,” Rodriguez said in a recent telephone conversation.
“I would go with them to their farm along with their biological kids. They showed me they really cared. I wasn’t singled out as a foster child. It made a difference,” Rodriguez said.
She still recalls the family outings as a breath of fresh air in a difficult time. They had a lasting impact and helped her as she grew.
“My Plant City foster parents still keep in touch today,” she said.
On April 11, a bill signed into state law changed the foster care rules so that those kinds of empowering excursions are no longer taboo.
The “Quality Parenting for Children in Foster Care Act,” SB 215, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert and Rep. Ben Albritton and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, intends to bring “normalcy” to the process of caring for foster children.
The language of SB 215, which takes effect July 1, acknowledges that children in foster care should “participate in life skills activities” that are “age-appropriate” and “increase their ability to live independently and become self-sufficient” when they age-out of the foster care system at 18.
For certain, “reasonable and prudent parenting standards” must be followed when a child is allowed to participate in “extracurricular, enrichment and social activities.”
But the law states that “foster parents, family foster homes, residential child-caring agencies or other authorized caregivers employing the reasonable and prudent parenting standard in their decision making shall not be held responsible under administrative rules or laws pertaining to state licensure … as a result of the actions of a child engaged in the approved age-appropriate activities.”
In other words, foster parents and guardians will be less encumbered when they work with foster kids.
Although potential risk must be weighed, a “caregiver is not liable for harm caused to a child who participates in an event approved by the caregiver,” the law says.
Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian Ad Litem child advocacy program, remarked earlier that the bill, also known as the permission-to-parent bill, “needed to be passed so children in foster care can be like every other kid” by moving from school to school, playing school sports, using the phone or participating in school trips.
Under the old rules, such activities would have been permitted only with precautions like background checks. The purpose: satisfying liability concerns.
One young adult described not be allowed to join the traveling high school band.
As of February, 30,552 abused and neglected children were under Florida dependency court system supervision. That statistic comes from Marcia Hilty, 5th Judicial Circuit director for the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) program, which represents 21,157 of those children statewide.
GAL assigns volunteers to act as advocates for the children. Those advocates may stay with a particular case, involving one or several children, for years, always seeking the best interests of their charges.
According to Hilty, the 5th Judicial Circuit (Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties) has 1,667 involved in the court system — 1,426 of whom are represented by GAL.
Spruce Creek South resident Norman Abels, 75, a GAL volunteer for six years, praised the passage of SB 215.
“It will give us the ability to give these kids a more normal life,” he said. “Without normalcy there’s no outlet for the kids.”
Abels emphasized the importance of Voices for Children of North Central Florida, a 501(c)3 nonprofit community-based group that raises funds to aid children in foster care under GAL supervision.
Abramowitz reflected on the meaning of the newly passed law:
“Sleepovers, high school sports, driving, going to the beach and other regular activities we all take for granted are now permitted by the foster parent or caregiver just as any decision reasonable prudent parents make all the time,” he said.
“The red tape and obstacles have been removed so children in foster care can participate in regular activities as all other kids in our community.”