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Less than 2 percent of Utah teens in the state foster care system are able to obtain driver's licenses. Foster teens and the Division of Child and Family Services are asking lawmakers to consider a means to help more youths obtain their licenses.

SALT LAKE CITY — Like any teenager, Sam Carling needed wheels.

But when he was old enough to obtain a driving permit, he was in foster care. Foster families weren't willing to assume the liability of young driver so none would give their consent for him to get a license.

"Mostly, I got around paying people to drive me," he said. Carling estimates he spent about $500 over three years just for rides.

Carling, who is 19 and was recently adopted, said he finally got a driver's license after leaving state custody.

Like any teenager, getting a driver's license is an important rite of passage to youths in the state's foster care system. But it is a goal that eludes the vast majority of them.

Of 960 youths ages 16 and older in foster care, just 15 have their driver's licenses, Jennifer Larson, adolescent services program administrator for the Division of Child and Family Services, told state lawmakers Thursday.

"Yes, it's a rite of passage, but it's also a major piece of ID," Larson said, addressing members of the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel at the state Capitol.

Members of the state Youth Council, made up of youths in the state's foster care system, consider the issue a high priority, Carling said.

Obtaining a form of identification is important as teens who age out of foster care apply to colleges, open bank accounts or go to medical visits.

"I think it's a good way for kids to get independent," said Carling, who will soon serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Milwaukee.

Some lawmakers said it is understandable, given the limited stipends foster parents receive to help cover the cost of children they care for, that they would be unable, and perhaps unwilling, to cover the cost of automobile insurance for teen drivers.

"I’m trying to protect the foster parents out there. We pay them nothing, and we expect the world from them," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden.

Larson said members of the Youth Council understand that insuring teenagers is expensive, but they wonder if some mechanism could be developed so it is an earned privilege for those who maintain a 3.0 grade-point average or higher, regularly attend school and meet other conduct standards.

DCFS is meeting with state risk managers as well the private insurance industry to get a handle on costs and whether teens in foster care have comparable driving records to their peers.

"I don’t see the state buying a full-coverage policy for 16-year-olds," Christensen said.

Perhaps there are other options, said Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville.

"Maybe the kid can get a job and get their own insurance," Anderson said. "Maybe we can create a system where the (foster) parents can make the ultimate decision."

The issue is, obviously, still in the talking stages, Larson said.

"Is this something we can take on as a liability for the division?" she asked.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com