By Elizabeth Putfark
A driver’s license is more than just a rite of passage – it’s the means by which we transition into the adult world. Currently only three percent of the 2,000 16 to 17-year-olds in Florida foster care have a license, which leaves them behind their peers as they enter college and the job market.
But that’s about to change. Keys to Independence, a new program effected by recent legislation and managed by one of Florida’s leading nonprofits, Community Based Care of Central Florida (CBCCFL), promises to get more teenagers in foster care behind the wheel and on their way to a more empowered youth.
Putting a young adult in the driver’s seat grants her access to opportunities that social psychologists consistently laud as essential to positive growth and development. According to Gerry Glynn, CBCCFL’s chief legal officer, after-school clubs, athletics and activities build more than strong character – they build a critical skillset.
“Most of us learn workforce soft skills while we’re still in high school,” Glynn explains, “but we mostly learn them in clubs and teams. You learn how to respond to a boss by listening to a coach. You learn how to work with others by being part of a team. Many if not most of those activities require access to after school events, and that means driving.”
Driving opens up many part-time and summer work possibilities for foster youth as well. Public transportation is rarely a viable option in non-metropolitan areas, and even if it were most employers in tourism (Florida’s leading industry) want workers who are authorized to drive golf carts and shuttles.
Unfortunately, many obstacles stand between foster teens and their driver’s licenses. First they have to find someone willing to take responsibility for them by signing off on a learners permit, which many case managers and home providers are actually restricted from doing. Next, they need an adult that’s willing to ride with them while they log 50 hours behind the wheel. The final and most significant obstacle comes after earning the license itself: paying for insurance.
“Foster teens have to find someone who is willing to add them to their insurance policy,” Glynn explains, “which costs anywhere from $250 to $400 per month. For most foster parents that would exceed the entire amount of money they have allocated to each kid.”
The Keys to Independence program offers to help and fund teens as young as 15 while they attain their learner’s permit and complete the required courses for earning their license. CBCCFL will also reimburse costs for each qualified teenager’s monthly insurance.
“This year legislature has allocated $800,000 to overcoming the barriers foster kids face,” says attorney Glynn, who began advocating for what became the Keys to Independence program after years representing foster teens who were held back by their lack of licensure. “That sounds like a lot of money, but in truth we’re only able to fund 200 students with that – 10 percent of those who qualify.”
How you can help
Now in its first year, the Keys to Independence program hopes to garner more and more community support as it improves the lives of Florida’s foster youth. “A lot of these youth will need access to an adult that’s just willing to ride with them,” Glynn explains. “We need volunteers to step up and say, I’m willing to put in the 50 hours this teen needs to help them learn to drive.”
The CBCCFL also hopes that Driver’s Education courses and insurance companies will reach out with special deals for foster teens.
“Foster youth want to be like every other youth. Whether that’s being able to go out on a date, spend the night, or participate in a sports team. If they can access driving, that’s one less barrier to feeling like every other kid.”
Any child over the age of 15 living in a foster care home or facility is invited to apply online at keystoindependence.org. Click on “Contact Us” to volunteer your time and/or resources for the betterment of Gainesville area teens who have been removed from their birth families due to abuse or neglect.