Sen. Tommy Tucker offers former foster child Calvin Mackay his car so that Mackay, 22, has a vehicle to drive during his driver's license exam.
Sen. Tommy Tucker offers former foster child Calvin Mackay his car so that Mackay, 22, has a vehicle to drive during his driver's license exam. Photo credit: Jen Ferris

A suite of bills would make life a little easier for foster kids … and their parents.

By Jen Ferris

Calvin Mackay, 22, doesn’t have a driver’s license. When he was 17, he wasn’t allowed to drive because he was a kid in the North Carolina foster care system. And then when he turned 18, he was on his own, aged out of the system that might have supported him as he studied for his exam or loaned him a car to drive for his test.

Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Raleigh) gives a pep talk to a group of former foster children who were preparing to speak in front of the Senate Health Care Committee. Photo credit: Jen Ferris

“When my friends started to drive and I couldn’t, I started to look at my life differently,” Mackay said, speaking outside a Senate Health Care Committee meeting Tuesday at the North Carolina General Assembly. “My foster parents even wanted me to be able to drive and get my license, but the system made everything a lot more complicated.”

Mackay was in Raleigh to speak in favor of the Foster Care Family Act, a bill that would expand foster families’ rights. The Senate committee gave this bill a favorable report Tuesday, while the House of Representatives Health Committee passed it through committee Wednesday. The next stop for the Senate bill is the Judiciary Committee and the House bill is moving to the full House for a vote.

The bills’ sponsors say they are optimistic that the bill will become a law this session, as it has both bipartisan and bicameral support.

An empty childhood

Currently in North Carolina, foster parents lack the ability to give their foster children permission to join sports teams, drive cars, date or even hang out with friends. The proposed change would allow families to make these decisions together, without having to involve a caseworker or child-protection representative.

Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw) offers former foster child Calvin Mackay his car so that Mackay, 22, has a vehicle to drive during his driver’s license exam. Photo credit: Jen Ferris

“[The current law] does not help a child or a human being grow up into a responsible adult,” said Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Raleigh), sponsor of the bill. As a foster parent herself, she said she saw firsthand how limitations to children’s freedom could leave them ill prepared for adulthood.

Similar legislation has been passed federally, and supporters say it helps normalize the teen years for children who have been separated from their biological families.

Mackay said that as a 17-year-old, the lack of freedom separated him from his friends, who were able to make spontaneous plans after school or on the weekends. Currently, a caseworker must vet a foster kid’s friends or love interests with a full background check of the entire family.

Protecting parents

Another provision of this law would protect foster parents from lawsuits made by children’s’ biological families. Parents receive about $18 per child per day to clothe, house and feed foster children, but they can lose far more than that if a biological parent decides to sue a child’s foster family.

Jamie Anderson, a finance professor at Appalachian State University and former foster parent, said at Tuesday’s meeting she wouldn’t consider fostering in North Carolina until the state protects foster parents from liability.

“I’m not willing to put my own family and my own financial well-being at risk,” Anderson said. Her sentiments were echoed by health committee Co-chair Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw), who was orphaned as a teen and has also been a foster parent.

“I would oftentimes have an agreement written up by my attorney and the mom would sign it in case the children got hurt in our home,” Tucker said. “But that agreement is, as my attorney told me … not worth the paper it’s written on.”

North Carolina is one of 12 states that does not offer protection from liability for foster parents.

Barringer has also filed a bill to extend the age of foster care through 19, to allow children to graduate high school before they age out of the system. This session, there have been a number of House and Senate foster care bills filed.

Barringer said it’s time to give North Carolina foster parents and teens the quality of life they deserve.

“This bill should be important to everyone,” she said. “You can’t grow up to be adults if they don’t have those experiences. They can’t drive. Most of them can’t cook because the foster parents are afraid to let them cook.”

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