Hillsborough students help propose legislation to help kids abused in foster care

A group of Hillsborough County students is taking a stand for children who may be dealing with abuse in foster care. They want to make it easier for them to report trouble at the first sign and they're already getting plenty of support up in Tallahassee.

They may not be able to vote yet, but they know they can change laws.

The "Ought to be a Law" program has been in Hillsborough County Schools since 2004. Students team up with lawmakers to fix Florida problems.

"We've been able to pass four pieces of legislation from student-led ideas," said Sumner High School teacher Tony Pirotta.

Some of those laws include enhanced penalties for teachers in inappropriate relationships with students and an end to the tax on feminine hygiene products.

This year, they're targeting foster care abuse.

"We all sat around and we were like, how can we fix the current system, how can we make it better for each other and people that we know, people that we don't know?" said Sumner H.S. student Cam Sargent. 

With the help of Rep. Susan Valdes, they drafted House Bill 1093. It requires that foster children placed by the state are informed of their rights on abuse, abandonment, and neglect, what to report and how to report it.

"We found that students, in general, didn't feel like they had been very educated on what their rights were," Pirotta said.

The age-appropriate information would be reviewed with the child every six months or upon change in placement. The bill also authorizes school boards to set up educational programs for students on how to spot and report dangerous situations.

"No child deserves to be in a home with a foster parent or guardian that is abusing or neglecting them in any way," said Sumner H.S. student Alexa Verschuere. 

One student working on the bill said he experienced abuse, himself in the system before being placed in a safe, loving home.

Though he asked us to protect his identity, he said, "I know this bill will help others that are in situations like I was because it will provide them with the appropriate tools to help them find safety in a terrifying and unstable environment."

Sumner H.S. student Kayla Brown said, "It was important that those in foster care or those around that arena kind of also feel a part of something and also feel that their voices are heard."

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Tuesday, the students' voices were heard, too. House Bill 1093 passed unanimously through the Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee

"This is civics at its best," said Rep. Valdes. "It's their legislation. It's their idea that we're carrying forward."

HB 1093 still has two more committee stops left in the House of Representatives. Then, it's off to the Senate.  

"It would just be a really amazing feeling to know that something that we're doing as 14, 15, 16-year-olds, is actually going to change the lives of people, not just now, but also for many years to come," said Verschuere.