Ashland teen drives legislation to pave road toward DMV license

SALEM — Like most Oregon teens, Zachary Miller couldn't wait to get his driver's permit.

He took the test just before his 16th birthday and passed the first time. But things took a wrong turn when the clerk at the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services office wanted to see his birth certificate.

Miller, who lives in Ashland and has been in state foster care for two years, asked his caseworker for the document. Sorry, she told him, the supervisor wouldn't allow it.

The high school sophomore was not just disappointed he couldn't get his permit; he became determined. Now Miller and other current and former foster youths are on track to score a legislative win rare for first-time lobbyists. And along the way, they've made some political friends that even the most seasoned Capitol insiders would envy.

Teens in foster care routinely encounter roadblocks when they try to get their driver's licenses. Technically, the state has no rule against it. But it's not uncommon for caseworkers and foster parents to ask teens to wait until they're out of state care, said Kevin George, Oregon's foster program manager.

Miller thinks that's unfair, especially when his friends are getting their licenses.

"Not letting foster youths get a license until they're 18 makes us feel kind of apart," he said.

So when a new group calling itself the Oregon Foster Youth Connection met to talk about issues it would raise with lawmakers during its upcoming visit to Salem, Miller mentioned his license roadblock. Heads nodded.

In early February, four foster youths sat down with Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland. Co-chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, Buckley later admitted he hadn't paid a lot of attention to foster care issues. But Buckley said the young people he met that day were articulate and convincing.

Katie Kirkpatrick, 19, told Buckley that some caseworkers wouldn't allow teens to get their licenses because they worried about liability.

Kirkpatrick speaks from experience. She spent more than 10 years in and out of state foster care, starting when she was 14 months old. She said caseworkers told her she couldn't get a license, but her experienced foster mom wouldn't take no for an answer.

Kirkpatrick saved $500 and bought a dark green, very used Ford Taurus. Her foster mom put the teen on her insurance, though that isn't a requirement for foster parents.

Kirkpatrick said she also told Buckley: "Having a license is not just a privilege for a youth leaving care, it's an independence skill."

Moved by their stories, Buckley offered one of his two personal "priority bills" to the group. These are bills that legislators often use when they really want something done and have no other option.

The proposal the teens had drafted adds "driving privileges" to the list of "needs and goals" the state must help youths achieve before they are old enough to transition to life on their own.

Buckley also found a way to help teens in foster care afford driver's training through an existing student driver training fund fueled by the $6 that Oregonians pay each time they renew their driver's licenses.

Meanwhile, officials from the state Human Services and Transportation departments are collaborating on how to make it all work.

Under the plan, foster youths would still be responsible for buying their own cars, gas and insurance. And kids who are runaways or in trouble with the law would not have the right to a license.

As with almost any proposal before the Legislature, Buckley cautions that there are no guarantees.

"But," he said, "it seems like all systems are go."

Miller responds: "It's a nice feeling to know that your voice is being heard way up the political ladder."

And if the legislative process goes as he hopes, he says: "I will definitely push again for my permit."

Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143;

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