Many of us vividly remember going to the DMV to get our driver’s license on our 16th birthday. The thrill of driving, and the independence brought with it, is something many can look back on as a moment of liberation and excitement. What we might not have realized at the time is the statistical significance of this milestone on the journey through life. We know that youth who have their driver’s license and access to a car often do better in school, have more college options, and eventually, more satisfying careers.

Unfortunately, for young people in foster care, getting a driver’s license is not always simple. Studies show that 70 percent of high school seniors have a driver’s license nationwide while in Florida only 2 percent of youth in care had their driver’s license. [1] Similarly in Virginia, only 5 percent of youth in care had received their driver’s license before they turned 18 years of age.[2] We, at Children’s Home & Aid, see this firsthand in the communities we work with every day.

Barriers Youth in Care Face When Getting Their Driver’s Licenses

Despite the many benefits of learning to drive, teenagers in the foster care system struggle with obtaining their license due to systematic obstacles associated with being a youth in care.

  • Access to a car for driving practice. Youth under the age of 18 are required to have 50 hours of driving practice, but for youth in care, if their caregivers don’t have a car, they may not be able to meet that requirement to obtain their license.
  • Affordability of driver’s education. Driver’s education can be expensive and while public high schools in Illinois often offer driver’s education to students, they can charge up to $250 for driver’s education. Additionally, students are required to meet certain educational and attendance requirements to be eligible for driver’s education. Many youth in care may not meet those requirements due to the circumstance of being in the foster care system.
  • Affordability of insurance. Insurance is expensive for any driver but there are increased insurance fees for teen drivers — adding a teen male to an already existing plan can be over $2,000 and if a teen were to obtain care insurance themselves it can be over $5,000. These costs are a huge barrier to families and teens and can mean a youth in care isn’t able to obtain their driver’s license.
  • Providing proper identification documents to obtain their license. Oftentimes, youth in care experience multiple placement moves which can make it difficult to keep track of their birth certificate, social security card, etc. Additionally, their case manager may have those documents, but again, it may be difficult to gain access to them.

Even if families manage to conquer these challenges, they still need to overcome the hurdle of understanding and complying with the regular licensing process.

As a result of these barriers, youth in care often miss out on age-appropriate experiences that help them make a successful transition into adulthood. Often, these missed opportunities stunt their social development and create additional obstacles for them to navigate down the road.

Overcoming Barriers and Getting Youth in Care Behind the Wheel

At Children’s Home & Aid, we are partnering with families, youth in care, and all those who support them to come up with solutions so teens can drive towards a brighter, more equitable future. Through our Ahlquist Center for Policy, Practice, and Innovation, we are advocating for policy changes within Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and increasing awareness about the barriers facing youth in care when learning to drive. To begin to break down those barriers, Children’s Home & Aid is partnering with DCFS to develop and implement a pilot program to eliminate some of the cost barriers youth in care face getting behind the wheel. For eligible youth in our care, we can pay for driver’s education, driving lessons, and any fees associated with acquiring a permit or license.

Currently, over 30 states have policies to make accessing driver’s licenses easier for youth in care. “Being able to drive provides many benefits that we believe youth in foster care should be able to take advantage of just as easily as youth not in care,” states Eric Mayo, Public Policy manager at the Ahlquist Center. “Whether they’re getting to work, attending school, running errands, or providing transportation for family members, driving and access to a car give teenagers much-needed independence and responsibility.” We hope that our pilot program and our continued advocacy will make driving more accessible to youth in care and provide the normalcy they deserve.

The efforts by the Ahlquist Center team builds on the incredible work done in other states. The Keys to Independence program, run by Embrace Families in Florida, is one leader helping youth in care obtain their license and learn to drive. Gerry Glynn, Chief Legal Officer at Embrace Families, stated on our Ahlquist Agenda podcast “That’s the trauma our foster kids face every day when they can’t go spend the night at a friend’s house, participate in an extracurricular activity, go to a dance, or any of those normal activities, including driving. They’re traumatized by our denial of their access to normalcy.” Keys to Independence campaigns across Florida to ensure foster parents and youth know this program is available and advocate to remove existing barriers to getting a license and driving. They also provide assistance to other states across the nation with programs who want to do this work. We have benefitted from their leadership and hope to implement similar strategies through our pilot program here in Illinois.

Helping Youth in Care Overcome Obstacles to Learning to Drive

The safety, liability, and cost concerns mentioned above make it very difficult for youth in care to get their driver’s licenses when their peers do. As a result, most of them leave care without a license. Youth who “age out” of the foster care system often face lifetime challenges, including homelessness, incarceration, and low educational attainment. A contributing factor to these challenges is the lack of a driver’s license. That begs the question: What can we do to help youth in care overcome these obstacles?

Our pilot program with DCFS is just the start. Here are several other recommendations for helping youth in care get behind the wheel.

Eliminate barriers to driver’s education.

Every Illinois high school is required to offer driver’s education to eligible students. Not only is it expensive as we mentioned earlier, but students are only eligible if they meet certain educational requirements. Those requirements extend even if a youth in care chose to take driver’s education from a private school. For youth in care who may have to change schools frequently, this could be a barrier. Driving is a necessary skill for all, and you should be able to learn regardless of your educational status.

Provide affordable car insurance and liability for youth in care.

One barrier not addressed in our current pilot program is auto insurance. Illinois drivers are required to have auto insurance, and the costs for teens are astronomical. Standard foster care payments will not cover the added expense, and this may prevent youth in care from entering a program like ours in the first place. Ten states reimburse foster parents for any auto insurance related expenses for youth in care. We at Children’s Home & Aid will continue conversations to ensure Illinois becomes the 11th.

Make it easier for youth in care to prove their identity.

In our research, we heard from many folks who spoke about the difficulties of obtaining a license, a social security card, or other identification documents.  The State of Washington, for example, allows youth in care to receive a permit or license simply by obtaining a letter from their child welfare agency confirming their identity. Illinois should consider making it just as easy for youth in this state to prove their identity. 

Driving is a skill youth in Illinois need to get a job and assert their independence, so it is critical to learn as early as possible and access future opportunities. To learn more about how programs like ours helping youth in care get their driver’s licenses, check out The Alquist Agenda’s podcast called “Driving to Independence.” You can also help youth in care by donating to Children’s Home & Aid today. Your gift supports youth by putting families first and will help us create an equitable world where all children and families thrive in strong communities.

[1] 1 Atkinson, Amy M. “Barriers to Obtaining a Driver’s License for Virginia’s Foster Youth.” Virginia Commission on Youth., pg 6

[2] See 1, pg 10-11