Learning to drive is an exciting and nearly essential milestone for young people today. Yet, for youth exiting foster care, this rite of passage is often littered with obstacles — from DMV fees to costly automobile insurance rates.
“Youth in foster care meet challenges each step of the way — when applying for their permit, enrolling in driver’s education programs, participating in supervised driving, purchasing cars and obtaining car insurance,” writes Lucy Johnston-Walsh a law professor who runs the Children’s Advocacy Clinic for Penn State’s School of Law.
This is a topic Johnston-Walsh knows well. She authored Behind the Wheel — a report based on research funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation — after a county policy in Pennsylvania banned her longtime client, Lara Hollinger, then age 18, from owning a car. The issue? Hollinger’s foster care status.
Behind the Wheel identifies common challenges that young people like Hollinger face and recommends policy moves that states can make to help these youth get behind the wheel — and get ahead in life. This advice includes:
allocating state funding to pay for car insurance, driver education courses, and licensing fees for foster youth;
simplifying permit and license application forms to not assign liability to the adult signer of application forms; and
working to ensure that foster youth have access to driver training by offering programs and providing funding to incorporate this training into the transition plans for independence.
In 2017, Hollinger and Johnston-Walsh brought their concerns to a local judge and argued — successfully — that the policy limited a young person’s independence and penalized them for circumstances beyond their control.
Despite this progress, Hollinger — who eventually left care over this issue — points out that there is still more work to do. “I think a lot of people still need to understand how much harder it is to get insurance or to get the hours behind the wheel when you are in care,” she says.
Beyond the Report
In addition to supporting Johnston-Walsh’s research, the Foundation has also funded the State Policy Advocacy & Reform Center (SPARC), a nonpartisan center focused on supporting state advocates who are pursuing child welfare reforms. In conjunction with the nonprofit First Focus, SPARC has launched Going Places — an initiative focused on identifying and advancing policy solutions that can help young people in foster care obtain a driver’s license.
As part of these efforts, Going Places profiles programs that are helping youth in care get on the road. One such success story — which Behind the Wheel touts as a model to follow — is Keys to Independence, a three-year pilot created by the state legislature in Florida. The program allows reimbursements on learner’s and driver’s license fees, testing fees, traffic and substance abuse courses, driver’s education courses and insurance costs for youth in foster care.