When Allison Gilbreath held a work group in 2016 on youth aging out of foster care without a driver’s license, every single person — all young adults who had turned 18 while still in the foster care system — showed up 30 or 45 minutes late because they were relying on someone else for a ride.
The experience highlighted exactly the issue Gilbreath, policy analyst for Voices for Virginia’s Children, was studying: Most young adults who age out of foster care have major trouble getting a driver’s license, and it adds to the innumerable challenges they already face.
“For many of them, it means making a choice between: Do I work or do I go to school? Because they typically can’t do both and be dependent on rides,” Gilbreath said.
Though there aren’t any statistics pointing to exactly how many teens in foster care get their driver’s licenses before they turn 18, advocates anecdotally say that very few, or none, of the young adults they speak to have gotten licenses.
The General Assembly’s Commission on Youth heard a report from its staff on the topic last month, which is out for public comment period now. According to that presentation, this problem isn’t unique to Virginia — historically, almost no teens who age out of foster care have a driver’s license.
But for Virginia the problem could be especially magnified because the state has one of the highest rates of kids aging out of foster care, meaning they turn 18 without a permanent home. Gilbreath said roughly 500 foster kids age out of the system every year.
“It’s so critical for independence to be able to provide your own transportation,” said Cassie Cunningham, policy and research analyst with the Children’s Home Society of Virginia. “It also significantly reduces the availability of housing – for many of us that’s something we take for granted. If you’re trying to find somewhere to live and you don’t have insurance or a car, you have to find somewhere that has some kind of transportation access for you, which really diminishes the possibilities.”
There are a number of barriers, though, that make it difficult for foster kids to get a license. One might simply be that they move around a lot between different foster homes. They might start a driving class at one school, but leave before they can complete it, and arrive too late at the next school to enroll.
But one of the biggest obstacles is the cost of car insurance. Foster families often report fearing how much their insurance rates will rise once they add a foster child to their plan, according to the Commission on Youth’s report.
There’s even some misinformation among foster parents, with some under the impression that the foster child simply getting his or her learner’s permit could cause their rates to spike.
Even if they do manage to get their license and a car, many 18-year-olds can’t afford the insurance.
“Insurance for an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old is extremely expensive,” said Bruin Richardson, chief advancement officer with the Children’s Home Society of Virginia. “It almost becomes a Catch-22: If you don’t have a job, you can’t afford the insurance, and if you can’t afford the insurance, you can’t get a job.”
The commission’s staff offered some recommendations for the legislators to consider during their November meeting, including increasing funding to local Departments of Social Services so they can reimburse foster parents the cost of covering insurance, or to reimburse the young adult for the cost once they turn 18.
The recommendations also include several options that would request local Departments of Social Services to work with foster parents so that encouraging the foster kids to get their driver’s licenses is a priority.
“In order for this to be effective we have to combat the greatest barrier, which is car insurance,” Gilbreath said. “But I do think it’s also a really important piece that we encourage the local Departments of Social Services to have a cultural shift of encouraging foster youth to obtain their licenses.”
For young adults who age out of foster care, not having a driver’s license simply adds to the long list of challenges they already face, according to advocates.
They have trouble finding a place to live because they don’t have a parent or guardian willing to co-sign a lease; they have trouble pursuing secondary education; and they often face health problems due to the traumatic experiences many go through as children.
They are also more likely to develop substance abuse problems, depend on government assistance, have a criminal conviction and fail to obtain a high school diploma or GED. Seven of 10 girls who age out of foster care become pregnant before 21, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.
“Just the lack of permanent relationships that many of these youths are facing is a big challenge,” Gilbreath said. “Every young adult needs a person that they can turn back to for support, when they’re making life decisions or they get into a position where they need help, and many of our young people who age out of foster care don’t have that.”
(Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that a foster parent’s insurance rate will not increase if a foster child gets his or her learner’s permit.)