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Here's why it's so hard to get your driver's license while in foster care

Aug 5, 2015

A selfie Alex and Paula took at the DHS office where they are both working to improve outcomes for young people involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Credit PAULA LAQUERRE

I first met Alex back in January, when I did a story about aging out of the foster care system.

Alex lives in rural Berrien County. At a minimum, he's 20 miles from everything; college classes, any work he could find, really everything. He didn't have a car, so he caught a lot of rides with Paula Laquerre, a state worker helping Alex as he left the foster care system. During those rides they would plot how Alex was going to finally get a car.

That was January. Seven months later, Alex got a car - a 2005 Volkswagen Passat. It has changed his life. He can take more classes and it even allowed him to get a steady job at Pizza Hut. When Alex talks about it, he sounds like he almost can't believe it, “I feel truly blessed to have found a vehicle that runs very well.”

How Alex got this car is a pretty epic story with a lot of people helping. But, back up - How Alex got a drivers license is an epic story in itself, so we have to start there.

Alex came out of foster care with really just the clothes on his back. “Me coming out, I didn’t have a birth certificate or a social security card.”  

No identification makes it hard to get a license, but that’s not that uncommon for kids in the child welfare system. Luckily, Alex was over 18 and was able to get a voter registration card. He rebuilt his identity on paper from there. “It just all worked and I caught a few breaks, and felt like a person again!”

Connecting kids with documentation before they age out is part of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980) passed last year. Under the law, states must make sure teens have access to their social security card, medical records, and a driver’s license before aging out. The law doesn't actually make it any easier for kids to get their license though, which seems to be more of the problem. 

Identification was the first hurdle for Alex, then driver's education. In Michigan, teens need to log 80 hours of driving time to get their licenses. What happens when you don’t have your mom or dad to sit shotgun and let you drive their car? 

Incidentally, the state doesn’t let kids in foster care get driving hours on state owned vehicles, even if a state worker would be willing to ride with them.  That doesn't leave teens with many options, especially in Alex's situation. “I don’t have a lot of family at this point in my life.”

For lots of kids in care, that driving time roadblock is hard to overcome. Alex got lucky. He’s pretty beloved-everyone I’ve talked to about him says so. So there were folks who didn’t know Alex all that well, but were willing to white knuckle it while he learned to drive in their cars. His aunt let him get a few hours and his friend Paula also did her share. So did a county commissioner. Alex wants me to tell you her name: Debra Panozzo. She took Alex to his college classes for a year-  and she often let him drive - that’s how he made those hours.

Alex was 19 when he finally got his license. That’s a typical age to get your license if you’re in foster care. Then, there was getting a car. With no parents to cosign on a car loan or add him to their insurance, this was an expensive proposition. After that first story aired in January about Alex and Paula, a generous donor reached out to them and asked to donate money to their program. That freed up funds to help Alex out, and another nice person stepped in: Terry Hightower, from Lakewood Motor Sales. He doesn’t have to, but he works extra hard driving around the state to find good cars for the kids from Alex’s program.  “Me and Terry have formed this relationship where he goes out to the auctions, and he’s a certified mechanic also, so he finds good vehicles at a good price and he’s willing to sit with us through the paperwork.”

That's the story of how one exceptionally hard-working young person got a driver’s license and a car. He had the help of several supportive adults, some county officials, the media, and some angel investors. That is what it took.