Keys to adulthood: Arizona bill would let foster kids buy car insurance

License for foster kids

Via azcentral.com

When you’re a foster kid, there are plenty of barriers to feeling normal.

Mark Leeper remembers a key obstacle: He couldn’t drive. Not for lack of interest, but because there was no way he could legally obtain the car insurance that was needed to get a permit and, later, a license.

“It wasn’t even an option,” said Leeper, now 31.

It still isn’t. State law prohibits minors from entering into contracts, with just a handful of exceptions. While his friends were driving around to school or parties, he said, he didn’t enjoy the same independence because he couldn’t even think about getting behind the wheel of a car. If the law changed, “from an inclusion standpoint, that would be helpful,” Leeper said.

A bill on Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk could make that change.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Dave Bradley, would allow minors in foster care or group homes to buy car insurance, a prerequisite for getting a learner’s permit and driver’s license.

It could be a mixed blessing, given the potential cost of a stand-alone policy with no adult signing on. But Bradley said it would be a small step toward easing one of the hurdles older kids in foster care face: the ability to drive before they “age out” of the system and have to face the world on their own.

‘Being able to drive’

Bradley, D-Tucson, said he remembers distinctly a survey the state did several years ago of foster kids and their needs.

“One of the top requests was being able to drive,” he said.

Breanna Carpenter reinforced that message when she talked to lawmakers earlier this year about Senate Bill 1341.

 She was able to get car insurance, and the needed driver’s license, thanks to the financial backing of supportive foster parents. But that’s not the norm, as many foster parents already feel tapped out caring for children in state custody, let alone picking up the tab, and the liability, for a teen driver.

Thanks to the mobility her foster parents provided her, she could attend a high school outside her district’s boundaries and enroll in an international-baccalaureate program.

“My story is uncommon; however, it should be the norm,” said Carpenter, now 20. “The ability to obtain auto insurance could help more young adults obtain a driver’s license.”

Leeper said it sounds like a good idea, at least in principle.

“It would be normalizing,” he said. “But from a liability standpoint, it would cost an arm and a leg.”

Bill faced some opposition

 While the bill sailed through the Senate unanimously, some House members opposed it.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said the law regards minors as incapable of entering into a legal contract, such as an insurance policy. On top of that, he said, the bill carves out an exception for just one group of minors.

“I’m not against foster children driving,” said Farnsworth. But he is troubled by the state allowing youth to enter into contracts.

Bradley, however, notes foster children can already buy health and life insurance. Auto insurance would at least give them the opportunity to be on a par with their peers, albeit at a higher cost.

There are other barriers before foster children can get behind the wheel.

It’s not clear how many auto-insurance companies would offer policies to minors. A Geico representative said the company doesn’t have a product to sell.

Allstate Insurance would modify one of its existing policies to allow minors to make a purchase, said company spokeswoman Melinda Wilson. She couldn’t estimate the cost, saying there are too many variables to come up with a general figure.

The next step, if Ducey signs the bill, would likely be working toward a way to make it easier for a foster kid to get an adult’s signature on a learner’s-permit application without having to assume full liability, said Meghan Arrigo, associate director of child-welfare policy for the Children’s Action Alliance.

Although car insurance is the last step in getting on the road, Arrigo said, it’s crucial. The alliance decided that would be the first policy change it would tackle before taking on what she said is the trickier issue of a change at the Motor Vehicle Division.

“We started almost at one end of the continuum and worked backwards,” she said.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.