SB 7034 increases child care subsidy, expands tuition waiver
Senate Bill 7034, Child Welfare, by the Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, chaired by Senator Ileana Garcia (R-Miami), was signed into law today by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby), Chair Garcia, and several other Senators joined Governor DeSantis in Miami for the bill signing ceremony. Building on reforms passed during the 2021 Legislative Session to increase protections and consistency for children in out-of-home care and address critical gaps in investigations and information transparency, the new law expands benefits for foster families and relatives willing to take on the responsibility of raising children who cannot live with their parents.
“Improving the level of benefits for family members and foster parents could mean all the difference when these folks are considering whether they can take in a vulnerable child,” said President Simpson who as an adopted child himself has made child welfare a priority of his two-year term as Senate President. “The earlier in life we can give children a safe, permanent home, the better opportunities those children will have for the rest of their lives. Government is a horrible parent, but we can, and we will continue to make foster children a priority by identifying and supporting caring families for them. Governor DeSantis, our First Lady, and Speaker Sprowls are amazing leaders in this effort, and I am grateful for their support of pro-life policy reforms within our child welfare system.”
“Across our state, we have so many dedicated relatives who are willing to step up to the plate and take on the responsibility of raising a child. Whether it is the level of monthly support needed to feed, clothe, and shelter a child, or access to the college tuition waiver, these heroic family members should have the same level of benefit as a foster family,” said Chair Garcia. “Likewise, the costs of out-of-home daycare, which we require for children in the dependency system, have been identified as a major barrier for families interested in fostering children. This bill closes the gap between what the Early Learning Coalition voucher pays and the actual cost of care. I am so grateful to our Governor and First Lady for their work to support the courageous families who provide safe homes when a vulnerable child is in need.”
Enhances Benefits for Relative Caregivers
SB 7034 modifies monthly payment amounts for relatives and nonrelatives who have children placed with them in out-of-home care to the same rate as licensed foster parents.
When children cannot remain safely with their parents, placement with relatives is preferred over foster care with nonrelatives. Caseworkers try to identify a relative who can safely care for the children while parents receive services to address the issues that brought the children to the attention of child welfare.
Placement with relatives, or kinship care, provides permanency for children and helps maintain family connections. Kinship care is the raising of children by grandparents, other extended family members, and nonrelative adults with whom they have a close, family-like relationship, such as godparents and close family friends.
In Florida, there were 22,078 children in out-of-home care as of December 31, 2021. Fewer than half of those children were placed with approved relatives and nonrelatives, and instead placed in licensed foster care, group care, or in another placement.
Increases Child Care Subsidy
SB 7034 also provides a $200 per month subsidy to any foster parents and relative and nonrelative caregivers who have a child placed in their home between the ages of birth to school entry, intended to help defray the cost of an early learning or child care program.
Under the Rilya Wilson Act, children in the foster care system must enroll in an early education or child care program and attend the program at least five days per week, unless the court grants an exception based on the best interests of the child. The increased visibility that participation in early education and child care programs provides can minimize further abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Participation in these programs can also help address the developmental effects that abuse, neglect, and abandonment can have on children.
The cost of participating in these programs is subsidized in part or fully by the coalition for eligible children, but that funding is only able to be utilized if there is a spot open in a school readiness program. Even if the child is able to be enrolled in a program that qualifies for the school readiness subsidy, often that subsidy does not cover the cost of the program and the caregiver is responsible for paying the difference. The $200 monthly subsidy in SB 7034 is provided to close to gap between the funding currently available and the actual cost of care.
Expands College Tuition Waiver
Youth in foster care face many barriers when it comes to higher education, and as a result the most cited statistic nationally is that about four percent graduate from college by age 26, compared to 36 percent of the general population. Florida was part of the original group of states in the late 1980s that began offering assistance with higher education to students leaving foster care. As the tuition and fee exemption for students who are or were in out-of-home care under varying circumstances changed and was expanded over the years, instances were discovered that appeared to create inequities between similarly situated students and brought to light the issue of reunited students. Specifically, this issue was brought to the attention of President Simpson by a concerned grandparent.
“When it came time for my granddaughter to apply for college, we were surprised to learn that because I made the decision to raise Sabrina and her brothers, rather than seeing them raised in foster care, she would not be eligible for the college tuition waiver that is available for other students who stay in foster care,” said Ms. Pamela Dunn, who contacted President Simpson’s office last year. “I want to make sure other grandparents and relatives who have raised their family members don’t have to face the same logistical hurdles we had when trying to figure out how to pay for college.”
SB 7034 expands the scope of potential students eligible for a tuition and fee exemption at a workforce education program, or a Florida college or university to include certain students who have been the subject of a shelter, dependency, or termination of parental rights proceeding.