The Road to Normalcy: Driver’s Licenses For Foster Youth

The inability to drive can prevent foster teens from participating in everyday activities that youth from the general public get to enjoy regularly.  Each year, more foster youth around the country reach driving age without a clear way to actually begin driving. “Simply by virtue of their state involvement, thousands of foster youth are deprived the right to a normal life,” writes Lexie Gruber for the Chronicle of Social Change.

Entering foster care as a teen, Gruber describes the difficulties she faced in trying to have a normal life: “My high school years did not include the quintessential milestones that so many of my peers got to experience. Extracurriculars allowed me to spend more time outside of the group homes and shelters, but finding a ride was difficult….” If she wanted to spend the night at a friend’s, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families required that everyone in the household pass a federal background check. “I feared that my friends and my parents would think I was a delinquent if I told them they needed a background check for dinner. Making friends was pointless without being able to sustain the bond outside of the classroom,” she writes.  This experience is not unique to Lexie Gruber.

How difficult is it for foster youth to actually obtain a driver’s license? The answer to this question lies in the costs and contracts associated with providing driver’s licenses for foster youth, as well as the specifics of a given teen’s placement. According to Florida’s Guardian Ad Litem Program, only 2-3% of the state’s foster youth who are eligible to drive actually obtain a driver’s license by their 18th birthday.

In many states, there is no clear provision detailing how a foster teen can pay for insurance; in fact, in some states, like Utah, minors are not allowed to enter into any contracts whatsoever, which precludes foster youth, whose biological or foster parents may not be able or willing to enter a contract on their behalf, from being able to drive like most teenagers. Currently, only 12 states offer financial support for foster youth attempting to obtain their driver’s license, but no state currently covers all of the financial burdens that come with providing driver’s licenses for foster youth.

As normalcy becomes a key priority for child welfare organizations around the country, more states are introducing legislation that would help foster youth more easily obtain their driver’s license and expedite processes that are normally impeded by bureaucracy and undue financial burdens.

Clearing the Way for Driver’s Licenses for Foster Youth

In Florida, legislation enacted in 2013 known as “The Normalcy Bill” has, among other things, enabled Florida’s foster parents to take a more active role in decision-making regarding their foster teens; previously, a process of state approval limited them from common parent-child practices like teaching their foster teen how to drive.  A year later in 2014, Florida state passed the Keys to Independence Act establishing a three-year pilot program to help cover many of the fees associated with becoming a licensed driver. This year, in May, the governor signed it into law and helped to align Florida’s child welfare system with the goals of normalcy that are taking priority nationally.

Similarly, in Arizona, foster teens have been historically prohibited from entering into contracts. Furthermore, Arizona requires a car insurance policy for anyone seeking to get a learner’s permit, meaning that foster teens are essentially prohibited from driving until they turn 18. However, Sen. David Bradley (D-Tucson) has introduced a bill in the Arizona state legislature to work with insurance companies to help foster teens purchase car insurance for themselves.  In May, Arizona governor Doug Ducey signed the bill into law, officially allowing 16 and 17-year-old foster youth to purchase car insurance.

Congress Assists in Providing Driver’s Licenses for Foster Youth

Some states, however, have struggled with providing driver’s licenses for foster youth. As of 2015, Utah foster youth have been left without such options. According to Deseret News, state lawmakers were apprehensive about purchasing insurance for foster youth. Echoing lawmakers’ concerns, Jennifer Larson, adolescent services program administrator for the Division of Children and Family Services, asked, “Is this something we can take on as a liability for the division?” Even as more child welfare agencies are prioritizing normalcy for teens in foster care, the question of liability is a big barrier for legislators – and not just in Utah.

To combat the general concerns state governments have with assisting foster youth in obtaining their driver’s license, Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) has introduced the Foster Youth and Driving Act (FYD Act). This bill acknowledges the importance of driving to positive outcomes:

“Transportation is one of the largest barriers foster youth face in their transition to adulthood. It impacts every aspect of well-being, and has been an impediment to meeting their education and employment goals.”

Foster Youth and Driving Act, H.R 2512

The bill directs states to “implement the reasonable and prudent parent standard for foster parents to empower them to make decisions regarding the daily activities of children in their care,” much like The Normalcy Bill passed in Florida in 2013. The FYD Act will require foster care case plans to include a plan for assisting age-appropriate foster youth with obtaining a driver’s license. To help states enact these plans, the bill allows Title IV funding to be used to cover “vehicle insurance costs, driver’s education class and testing fees, practice lessons, practice hours and driver’s license fees.” It goes on to allow states to render such assistance to these youth even up until age 26, provided they maintain enrollment in a post-secondary education or employment program. Altogether, the Foster Youth and Driving Act represents a national movement towards normalcy for foster youth.

Driver’s Licenses for Foster Youth in New Jersey

New Jersey is one of the 12 states which partially covers the fees associated with obtaining a driver’s license as a foster youth. For youth who are at least 16-years-old, the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (CP&P) covers the costs of a minimum 6-hour behind-the-wheel driver’s education course, as well as the state road test and driver’s license fees by tapping into the state’s “flex fund” reserves.
Flex funds were created to provide financial assistance “for exceptional services until sustainable services or informal resources can be put into place.”  However, it is the responsibility of a teen’s foster parent to provide a vehicle for the state road test as well as cover costs for vehicle registration and insurance.

To learn more about how New Jersey helps its foster youth obtain driver’s licenses, click here.

To read the full text of the Foster Youth and Driving Act, click here.

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