INDIANAPOLIS – Jaquesha Smart didn't get a driver's license when she was in foster care, and now struggles to stay on Medicaid at age 21 because of the constant paperwork hassles.
But the Indiana legislature passed two bills targeting those exact issues, meant to help young people like Smart, who aged out of foster care at 18 without being reunited with their family or finding a permanent home.
“That's nice because when you turn 18, it's like getting thrown to the wolves,” said Smart – who lives in Fort Wayne and works as a certified nursing assistant. She is also raising a young son. “You're just supposed to have it together.”
MaryClare Akers – a social worker at SCAN, Inc. in Fort Wayne – said she is surprised lawmakers focused on foster care youth but said it's great for the kids.
“I hope they continue to put it in the limelight.”
Data are hard to come by but in 2015, about 16,600 kids were in foster care in Indiana, according to the Kids Count Data Center. That has grown significantly since 2010 when the number was about 10,700.
More than 500 kids in Indiana age out of the foster care system every year at 18. But that number is believed to be conservative.
Senate Bill 497 targets that population by saying they can automatically remain on Medicaid until age 26.
Technically that was already the law but in practice the state was making the young adults verify income and former foster care status every year.
Akers said Medicaid is the first thing to drop when foster care kids become independent. They must obtain a lot of documentation and be prepared to answer a phone call exactly when told. Often the paperwork becomes lost or recipients are unable to respond to the call. And, she added, sometimes Medicaid kicks them off through no fault of their own because of errors in the system.
The new legislation requires the Family and Social Services Administration to enroll them before they age out and removes the requirement to reapply every year. They remain on Medicaid until age 26 – similar to how long a child can remain on their parent's insurance.
A few lawmakers questioned whether that was appropriate if the young person, for instance, invented an app and became a millionaire. But the bill got strong bipartisan support and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law.
Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, sponsored the bill in the Senate. She used to work as a welfare department attorney in LaGrange and saw children aging out at 18 who weren't prepared for independent living.
“We try to give them the skills but it's hard. They don't have insurance or any of the support and they are left to their own devices,” Glick said. “This will at least see them through and they won't be thrown into the bureaucratic morass.”
Brent Kent, CEO of Indiana Connected By 25, said signing up every year was an unnecessary burden because the only eligibility is that they aged out of foster care.
He said there are very high levels of being uninsured in this population – nearly 6 in 10 former foster youth do not have insurance after 18.
Connected by 25 is a nonprofit that provides financial, educational and social support to assist foster care youth when they are about to or have already transitioned out of the foster care system, most often with no family or economic support.
The second bill, Senate Bill 366, was authored by Republican Huntington Sen. Andy Zay. It makes it easier for foster youth to get a driver's license.
It also was signed in to law.
Zay said a driver's license is important to give the kids the normalcy of getting a job, going to after-school activities or out on dates.
Kent said foster youths couldn't get a driver's license unless their birth parents signed for it, which didn't make sense if they have been taken away from those parents.
The legislation makes the license free and says the youth can take driver's education and practice driving with someone approved by the department, rather than a parent or legal guardian as the law was.
Most important, though, it allows the teenager to sign for their own license and insurance. The youth must pay for the insurance and the state is not liable.
Kent said allowing the teens to sign is exceptional since they are still minors. He noted the topic has kicked around for years but gained momentum in 2017.
Akers said liability is still somewhat a concern because foster youths have to find an adult willing to let them drive their vehicle for all the practice log hours.
“I don't know if this will eliminate the problem but it will help,” she said.