Second foster care expansion bill introduced

It appears the state legislature has the will to finally extend the age of foster care emancipation to age 21, now that the Senate has introduced a bill that almost matches the house bill that has languished a little.

State Sen. John Eklund and nine co-sponsors introduced Senate Bill 240 on Monday that virtually mirrors House Bill 50 that was introduced in February. The only real differences are the funding amounts and this bill does not have any guardianship components.

“Children in foster care in Ohio today face a cliff at age 18,” said Sen. Eklund. “I think we should do everything we can to help them transition to an independent life that is productive and purposeful and I believe this legislation will help serve that end.”

When House Bill 50 was first introduced, the appropriation to extend foster care emancipation to age 21 was $300,000 in 2016 to plan and $4.5 million worth of state and federal funds to implement in 2017. In the version that passed 28 to 3 in the Finance Committee, the new price tag is $550,000 for planning purposes and $24.5 million for implementation. The new senate bill includes $550,000 for planning but only $12.4 million to put the plan in action.

The federal government passed the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act in 2008 that allows the use of federal dollars to expand foster care. As of the end of February, 22 other states have adopted similar legislation.

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Mark Mecum, chair of Ohio Fostering Connections said the funding amounts in the two bills aren’t as far apart as they seem on paper.

“The premise behind the funding is the same but I believe the time lines and the appropriations may be a little bit different,” Mecum said. “It really just depends on when the bill would be enacted. So if the time frame of when the bill is expected to actually pass into law changes then the timeline on the bill needs to be updated.”

The primary bill sponsor on the House side, State Rep. Dorothy Pelanda, R-Marysville, told this newspaper previously when she originally introduced the bill it was a phased approach, but with input from others it was determined the state should take it on in its entirety.

The bill started out in the Community and Family Advancement Committee and passed by a vote of 14 to 1. A bill on the same topic was introduced last year, but it died in the Health and Aging Committee.

HB 50 stalled a bit after the two committees approved it and never made it to the House floor. Mecum surmised the guardianship component may have contributed to the delay. But he is encouraged the Senate has decided not to wait on the House.

“We’ve heard from many Republicans and Democrats in the Senate that they didn’t really want to wait,” Mecum said. “They saw that House Bill 50 was stalled for some reason and what they’d like to do is start having hearings on the bill and since they can’t do that until the bill passes the House they decided to go ahead and introduce their own.”

At last count, Butler County Children Services Director Bill Morrison said there were 63 teens in foster care who could “reasonably benefit” from the bill’s passage. The current rates for foster care start at $9 per day and go up to $170, there are additional per diem stipends for children with special needs and $7,500 annually for clothing, personal incidentals and graduation expenses. Adoption assistance for special needs children is negotiated between children services and the adoptive parents, based on the family circumstances and the needs of the child.

Morrison said he is encouraged the newest bill has so many co-sponsors.

“All of us in the child welfare arena recognize the absolute need for the passage of this bill,” Morrison said. “In a way all we;re asking for in this bill is just to allow these kids to have what all the other kids have. My children when they turned 18 didn’t suddenly become independent on their own.”

Each year Butler County Children Services hosts a graduation party for graduating seniors, who in most cases will be on their own. One graduate at the June party, Teaira, said she was heading off to Central State with four scholarships in her pocket. She said it would have been helpful if the state had already extended the emancipation age to 21.

“I think it’s helpful if it could be extended to 21 because a lot of people don’t have a support system, but others would like to start out on campus just to get the feel of being on their own,” she said. “I will be emancipating next month, so I only have a month after that, but I have a lot of supporters who have said ‘you can stay here’.”

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