Senate committee approves bill requiring information for foster children

Chelsea Hoover told state lawmakers on Wednesday that when her years of being a Kentucky foster child ended, social workers did not give her enough information about programs that could ease her transition into adulthood.

The social workers "were significantly less than helpful. They would not tell me what I needed to do," Hoover said in an interview.

After hearing from Hoover, the Senate Health and Welfare committee unanimously passed a bill that requires state social workers to give foster children specific information and support when they are 17 ½ . The bill also gives them extra time to decide whether they want to extend their commitment to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Senate Bill 213, sponsored by state Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

In 2011, 556 foster children between the ages of 18 and 21 extended their stay in foster care to get help with housing, living expenses, health care and other vital services until they turn 21.

Advocates are increasingly hearing concerns about barriers for foster children such as those expressed by Hoover, 19.

Under Bill 213, when a foster child turns 17½ social workers would have to inform the teens of their right to extend their commitment. The cabinet also would have to provide specific options on housing, health insurance, education, mentors, and employment, Winters said in an interview after the meeting.

Currently, foster children have six months after their 18th birthday to decide whether they want to extend their commitment to the Cabinet. Bill 213 would give the teens an additional six months — or until the age of 19 — to make the decision. Additionally, under the proposed legislation, foster youth can initiate going to court to extend their commitment instead of being dependent on state social workers to go to court as is currently the case.

"What we are really interested in is that there is a transitional living support structure," said Winters.

Former foster children such as Hoover who are members of a movement called True Up had the idea for the legislation, said the movement's executive director Gene Foster. True Up members are trying to eliminate barriers in the state's current system.

Hoover said she is now taking advantage of programs available to foster children who do not extend their commitment to the Cabinet. She is attending community college in Louisville.

From July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, 7,000 Kentucky children of all ages were in foster care on any given day. In that same period, 531 foster children turned 18 and left state custody.

"What we know is that 75 percent of the children who age out of foster care are not successful. Only one out of four children aging out of foster care enter adulthood on a successful note," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, the state's leading child advocacy group. "The provisions of this bill have the capacity to reverse those proportions."

"It could make three out of four successful. The reason for that is it extends the decision making time. It empowers the young person to be an active agent in decision making," Brooks said.

"It makes sense," said State Sen. Julie Denton, R- Louisville, chair of the legislative committee, "It's such an investment in our children who have been in state care."

In explaining his affirmative vote for the bill, State Sen. Joey Pendleton, D-Hopkinsville said that "every now and then we have to do the right thing up here. This is certainly one of the right things I've seen we've done this session."