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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 4 years ago

Drivers licenses provide keys to independence for foster kids

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Driving training for foster kids
by: Brittni Larson

Salvador Olmos knows the exact date he got his driver’s license: Nov. 12, 2014. It means more for the 18-year-old Port Charlotte resident than your average teen. He’s still in school working toward his GED, and he already lives on his own after two years spent in the foster care system. A license isn’t just a way to and from the movies for Olmos, it’s a resource that will help him get a job, and once he gets his GED, it’ll take him to Florida SouthWestern State College.

“It would make it easier on myself and open up more opportunities for myself, better jobs, getting to school early, keeping up with family,” Olmos said.

There was one barrier for Olmos, though: paying for the car insurance. He thought he’d able to afford it, but knew he’d be struggling. But a new program just signed into law called Keys to Independence is breaking that barrier down for Olmos and thousands of other teens in Florida.

For more information about Keys to Independence, and to apply for the program, visit keystoindependence.org. Adults who are interested in helping to mentor and teach these teens how to drive can reach the Community Based Care of Central Florida team through CBCCFL.org

The program helps teens and young adults in the foster care system ages 15 to 21 get their learner’s permit and then a license. It pays for driver’s education classes and car insurance through state funding. It takes what was once impossible and makes it attainable.

“Youth come into foster care because they’ve been victims of abuse and neglect; they shouldn’t be deprived of any normal adolescent development,” said Gerry Glynn, chief legal officer of Community Based Care of Central Florida, the nonprofit responsible for managing the program. “We should be providing them opportunities like any other teenager.”

Only 3 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds in Florida’s foster care system have their driver’s license. Because they might move from family to family or live in a group home with several other teens, they don’t have a stable set of parents or a guardian to take them to their license tests, to practice driving around the neighborhood or who would pay for their car insurance or want to take on the legal responsibility of that.

“This is a niche group of children that certainly have a challenge before them,” said Glenn Victor, spokesman for the Florida Safety Council (FSC). “Foster children don’t have a lot of the luxuries of what we might call a typical family setting may have, especially when it comes to some of the obstacles they may face when it comes to driving,”

The state has given the three year pilot program $800,000 for the first year, which could pay for insurance for up to 200 of the 2,000 15- to 17-year-old eligible teens in Florida, Glynn said. Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties have 300 teens who qualify, and four are already taking advantage of the program. Thirty-three are enrolled statewide, and the Florida Automobile Joint Underwriting Association will offer the teens insurance. Giving a minor insurance on their own independent policy is something that’s never been done before.

The Florida Safety Council has partnered with Keys to Independence to offer the driving classes and will pick teens up for lessons, take them to driving tests and allow them use of the organization’s cars to use during road tests.

Having a drivers license is about more than being mobile, Glynn said. It’s a critical adolescent experience that offers teens an opportunity to go to work or extracurricular activities that teach them life skills and responsibility, and foster kids weren’t getting that. Even being able drive themselves to visit friends is a learning experience, he said.

“It helps the individual psychologically to understand themselves and how they’re different from others and help them understand what works in interpersonal relationships and doesn’t work, which is then not only critical in jobs, but in life and building a successful families and friends and having an emotionally stable future,” Glynn said.

Olmos is looking toward the future, and his license is a big part of making his goals possible. He sees himself being able to drive to college soon, and wants to be a lawyer or a judge one day. He wants to work in immigration law and help those whose needs are often ignored.

“I see a lot of my friends get locked up, so I’m going to help them out,” he said. “I’m going to do what’s right, help the people that need it.”

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