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Louisiana Foster Care System Could Extend To 21-Year-Olds

Wallis Watkins

Youth in Louisiana's foster care system may be able to stay longer, under a bill that passed the Senate Finance committee Monday. 

Current state law says once a child in foster care turns 18, they're no longer under the care of the state, and all financial assistance stops. 

The state doesn't track youth once they age out of the system. But Secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services, Markeeta Walters, says national statistics show many leave foster care with nowhere to go.

"A high percent of them become homeless, many of them go into our prison systems," she explains.

Sen. Ryan Gatti’s (R-Bossier City) bill would allow youth to stay in the state's foster care system until they've graduated from high school or turn 21, whichever comes first, "because by that point," Gatti told members of the committee, "we’ve found that they’ve learned a job skill, they’ve had time to get a GED.”

Nearly 200 youth age out of Louisiana’s foster care system every year. But raising the age will cost the state about a million dollars annually.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur (D-Ville Platte) says his committee won't pass a bill it can’t fund. He proposed using money the state gets from the BP oil spill to pay for extending the foster care system.

Louisiana is set to receive about $50 million annually for the next 15 years for economic damages from the Deep Water Horizon settlement.

That plan leaves some uncertainty around future funding for including 21-year-olds in the foster care system.

Sen. LaFleur says the committee, "didn’t dedicate that revenue stream to this program, so every year we'd have to appropriate it, just like anything else in the budget."

He says the move could face some opposition from groups who — like the Department of Children and Family Services — need help funding their priorities.

"We've got a lot of folks out there who are in this same boat and we have to pick and choose sometimes winners and losers," he says. 

The bill is headed to the Senate floor.