LARGO, Fla. — Pinellas County schoolteachers Jay Pridham and his wife Erika were newlyweds back in 2015 with no plans of bringing a child into their home anytime soon. But that changed after Jay found out one of his students, Jenny, was being placed into a group home.
The conversation that would alter all three of their lives started with Jenny notifying Jay she needed to turn in her science project early. She was moving.
“She was like well I am leaving the school," Jay said "And I was like, okay, but where are you going? And she was like, ‘I’m going to a group home.’ ”
Jenny was 11 at the time. Jay and Erika quickly decided to become Jenny’s permanent guardians, her forever parents. She is now 17, and on the verge of graduating high school. Jenny dreamed of getting her art degree and working for Disney.
“She was all excited to head off to college and pursue her dreams,” Jay said.
The couple insists the Department of Children and Families told them in 2015 that foster children like Jenny qualified for a tuition waiver. But it wasn't until this past year that the family learned their daughter was no longer eligible for free college based on her age and the date her case was closed out to permanent guardianship.
Jay made a call for action.
“That could ruin my daughter's life,” he said.
After hearing Jenny's story, ABC Action News found out about a pending law that would prompt colleges and universities around the state to expand their tuition and fee exemption waiver programs for more foster children.
According to DCF:
Senate Bill 7034, which takes effect July 1, 2022, removes administrative burdens associated with the program and expands the number of students eligible for having their tuition and fees waived at all eligible colleges and universities throughout the State of Florida. This new legislation no longer requires guardians to enroll in the Relative Caregiver Program prior to seeking assistance. Certain requirements do have to be met to guarantee all fee and tuition waivers, and those are listed below.
Students are eligible if they were the subject of a dependency hearing and:
- Is, or was at the time he or she reached 18 years of age, in out-of-home care.
- Is, or was at the time he or she reached 18 years of age, in the custody of a relative or nonrelative pursuant to s. 39.5085, F.S., or s. 39.6225, F.S.
- After spending at least six months in the custody of the Department after reaching 16 years of age, was placed in a guardianship by the court.
- After reaching 14 years of age and thereafter spending at least 18 months in out-of-home care, was reunited with his or her parent or parents who were the subject of the dependency proceeding before he or she reaches 18 years of age, including a student who is reunited under s. 39.8155, F.S. For a student to be eligible under this subparagraph, the student must be Pell Grant-eligible, and the entity imposing the tuition and fees must verify such eligibility.
- Was adopted from the Department after May 5, 1997.
- Was placed in a permanent guardianship, regardless of whether the caregiver participates or participated in the Relative Caregiver Program under s. 39.5085, F.S., and remains in such guardianship until the student either reaches 18 years of age or, if before reaching 18 years of age, he or she enrolls in an eligible institution.
Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law April 12.
The Pridham family said no one notified them about Senate Bill 7034. Jay said finding out the bill is now law meant everything to Jenny.
“It is hard to put into words what a difference it is going to make for her,” Jay said.
Jenny is graduating from the Solid Rock Community School in June. She plans to attend St. Petersburg College in the fall.