Legislative fix coming for disabled foster kids

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The director of the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities said her agency will be able to provide services for severely disabled young adults in extended foster care under a legislative fix now in the works.

Agency Director Barbara Palmer said she and state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, have agreed on a tweak to a 2013 law that extends the option of staying in foster care to age 22 for people with disabilities.

"I've talked with the governor's office, and they're very supportive of us getting this fixed," Palmer said. "They don't want two agencies at odds with each other over children."

Before the law, which went into effect on Jan. 1, severely disabled foster kids turning 18 would be eligible for what is known as APD's Medicaid "home- and community-based" services waiver on an emergency basis. The kids' legal representatives could cite impending homelessness as an emergency.

But since the law passed, youths have had the option of staying in extended foster care until age 21 -- or age 22 for those with disabilities. So it's been unclear which services for disabled young adults in the foster-care system would be covered under the APD waiver and which by the privatized community-based care agencies, which get their funding through the Department of Children and Families.

Research shows that children in foster care have a much higher rate of disabilities than the general population and are 40 to 60 percent more likely to become homeless.

"We want them to stay in foster care if that's in their best interest," Palmer said this week. "But we also want them to be taken care of financially. So we're going to recommend that that be paid for out of APD."

Last week Palmer met with Detert, who sponsored the original legislation extending foster care and will sponsor the remedy now on the drawing board.

"What I told (Palmer) is some of our local (service providers), they might get a handicapped kid that costs them $50,000 a year for that one kid," Detert said. "And maybe they only deal with 80 kids, and they'd have to lay off staff to deal with their budget. (Palmer) agrees, and she's willing to work it out."

Department of Children and Families Deputy Director Pete Digre said his agency is "totally on board" with a legislative solution.

"The kids would get the benefit of the APD services and the educational services in extended foster care," he said.

Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care, said young people who have been abused, abandoned or neglected need specialized services to deal with the repercussions -- and those who also have disabilities need a separate set of services that APD is best qualified to provide.

"I don't think it's an either-or," Watkins said.

Neither does Palmer.

"I don't want a child to opt out of foster care," she said. "That is not and never was the intent of this (legislation). And I know it wasn't the legislative intent, either -- they weren't trying to do that. And I don't think any child should be put in a position where they could lose that kind of family support just to get financial supplementation."

The agreement is expected to include having the Agency for Persons with Disabilities supplement the funding for what are called "res hab" expenses for people with disabilities -- the staffing and services that allow someone to live in his or her community instead of an institution. Community-based care agencies would have to pick up other expenses.

"We pick up, at 18, their housing expenses," Palmer said. "And in some cases that's very expensive. (But) when the legislation was passed, they didn't put a fiscal impact statement in there -- and frankly, they never asked us, so we didn't know. We shouldn't be fighting over something like that."

Detert said she'd been getting feedback on the implementation of the law since it went into effect.

"You bump up against people's guidelines and rules," she said. "They want to do the right thing; they're just handcuffed by their own rules. So if we need some legislative changes in order to make this work, that's what we'll be doing next year."