SEBRING - Beginning this year, Florida kids can stay in foster care until they're 21, and Debby Driskill wishes Michigan would do the same.
"Twenty-one is better," said Driskill, whose foster daughter, Ramona Rafael, lives in Sebring. "At 18, kids are just out of high school, and they don't have the resources. If they could stay in foster care and be helped, I would like to see it change here."
The Driskills moved out of state before Ramona was 18, and the law didn't allow them to take her.
"It was so difficult leaving her," Driskill said. Even so, they remained close.
The Driskills consider Ramona's children to be their grandchildren. "We have always been their own grandparents," Driskill said.
Kirk A. Brown, Florida's new extended foster care director, will start on April 11. He will implement "My Future, My Choice," which began Jan. 1.
If they are enrolled in an eligible post-secondary institution, extended foster care children can receive financial assistance, case management services and other support as they continue pursuing academic and career goals.
Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation last year that gives young adults the option to stay in foster care to better prepare for adulthood and pursue higher education. The new program also allows young adults who were in foster care additional support as they complete college courses.
Brown is currently senior vice president of programs of business and development at Helping Abused Neglected Disadvantaged Youth in Broward County. He has degrees in criminal justice and sociology, and social work. He served three years as a family services counselor supervisor for DCF when it was Health and Rehabilitative Services.
When it passed last year, the measure lost just one lawmaker's vote, and Scott signed it into law in June. The bill's analysis concluded it wouldn't cost more, basically, because youths who age out of foster care often end up homeless, jobless or in jail.
According to the Children's Home Society, 33 percent of youths aging out of foster care will be homeless within three years and 25 percent of the males will end up behind bars. Just 30 percent will have graduated from high school by 18, said Christina Spudeas of the advocacy group Florida's Children First.
An average of 1,290 children per year aged out of foster care in Florida over the past three years, according to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
"My greatest pride and joy in life is that I am a social worker," Brown said. "Social workers need to be extremely proud, because we walk into darkness and bring light. Not everyone gets an opportunity to be a miracle every day."
"Not many 18-year-olds know where they're headed, they need that support," Driskill said. She just spent three months in Sebring taking care of her grand-daughter, Mandy.
"They're very busy, so we take care of the kids for them," Driskill said.