Nelson F. Hincapie, President and CEO of Voices For Children Foundation, was featured today in an opinion piece written to The Miami Herald.
Don’t hurt foster kids
BY NELSON F. HINCAPIE
Nelson F. Hincapie, Voices For Children President and CEO
Imagine you live in a home where you are abused or neglected. Then you are moved into foster care until you turn 18 years old and can “take care of yourself.” It is a severe way to grow up quickly, so it is no surprise that many of our foster-care children in Miami-Dade need help to make the transition into adulthood, in order to become successful members of society.
Until now, these kids have been able to get some help through the state’s Road to Independence program, which offers help with housing and living expenses, health and mental health assistance, and school.
That assistance is in danger. During this year’s legislative session, Florida House Bill 5305, cutting the financial help these young adults in Miami-Dade receive nearly in half, came close to passing. Thankfully, it didn’t, but budget pressure in our state is certainly not over.
If this kind of cost-cutting is implemented in the next session, these young men and women, who have been disadvantaged their entire lives, would be given even less of a chance to succeed. Many would be forced to quit school in order to make enough money to survive, and by doing so make themselves ineligible to receive any aid at all. Dropping from the program would further isolate them and strip away the resources needed for them to make it.
Erasing their best chance to finish school is clearly not the right way to help these children become productive members of our community. Frankly, it’s setting up our foster-care children to fail. It’s a tragedy that should not be allowed to happen.
The ill-conceived House Bill 5305 calculated that the “state average” stipend for a foster-care child in the Road to Independence program is $737 a month, and proposed capping the stipend at $675. The problem with that is quite obvious — taking a statewide average produces a result on which no one in our community could live. Living on $737 a month in Tallahassee is equivalent to about $1,100 in Miami.
The truth is that the current average Road to Independence stipend for a child in Miami-Dade is $1,138. Can an 18-year-old transitioning from foster care in Miami-Dade go from $1,138 to $675 without quitting school and going to work? Not likely. Miami-Dade’s cost of living has increased 18 percent in the past five years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a faster rise than other parts of Florida.
Protecting the Road to Independence program is more significant for Miami-Dade than anywhere else in Florida. Not only is the cost of living here higher, but we have by far the most children in the program. More than 24 percent of all Road to Independence recipients in the state live here. The next closest county is Broward with 12 percent.
Think of the unreasonable burden cutting this program would put on our transitioning foster children, who are not only working to become successful young adults, but are having to do so on a meager stipend that is expected to pay for schooling, housing and other living expenses.
These are difficult economic times, and our state legislators looked for ways to tighten the budget, as they should have. But this is a matter of fairness, not just cost. It’s also a trap of being penny-wise but pound-foolish; we can help these children now and benefit Miami-Dade for years to come, or we can neglect them now, as they have been neglected their entire lives, and pay for it later with an adult population ill-equipped to succeed without government help.
The foster care children in our community need us now to be their voices. Contact your state representative and voice your support for the Road to Independence program. The Florida legislature needs to create a better process for evaluating its funding. A “state average” calculation for stipend provisions results in unequal and unjust distribution of funds across the state. Without vocal community support, the Road to Independence will stop short for Miami-Dade.
Nelson F. Hincapie is President and CEO of Voices For Children, which raises funds to support the 11th Judicial Circuit Guardian Ad Litem Program.