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State foster care system needs reform

Alaska should not create untrained, homeless youths

March 8, 2009 / newsminer.com

It’s time for reform in Alaska’s foster care system. Just doing the same as last year isn’t working. The state of Alaska is custodian to 2,000 foster youths. We’re supposed to create hope an opportunity. Instead, 40 percent of Alaska’s foster youths end up homeless at some point in adulthood.

Statistics paint a picture of blocked opportunity. Foster youths are more likely than their peers to end up in jail — costing taxpayers $40,000 per year. The smarter option is University of Alaska job training and college courses at $15,000 per year. Our children should benefit from federally mandated, monthly face-to-face meetings with social work staff who are trained in helping youths succeed. A recent federal review of Alaska foster care said many of our youths get this support once every 8 months, not monthly. That’s thanks in part to chronic staff turnover, poor pay and crushing workloads at the Office of Children’s Services.

It’s time for new ideas that will work. That’s why we, and Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, are pushing HB 126 and SB 105. The bills are a product of last fall’s Foster Care Summit and information from experts who’ve advised us about reforms being pushed in other states.

Not everything costs money. For example, we started, with the state’s help, a voluntary discount clothing plan so foster youths can wear the same clothes as their peers. In Fairbanks, the great folks at Prospector just announced they’ll join our FosterWear effort, and will offer a 25 percent discount on clothing (including warm winter coats) to foster youths.

So, what else can we do that will pay dividends?

• Stop bouncing foster youths between schools. Too often in Alaska, we bounce foster youths between schools as they bounce between homes. Moving children between schools during the school year is a proven indicator that a child will underachieve. With each disruptive mid-semester change a child can fall behind in school by another four to six months.

Federal law provides partial funding to keep youths in the same school. The state needs to act proactively so all children can, where it makes sense, stay in their school.

• Provide college and job training. Alaska provides minimal support for those who’d seek success through a degree or job training at the University of Alaska. The university and state provide a small number of tuition-only scholarships to foster youths. Beyond that, foster youths face a problem all Alaskans face — the second stingiest financial aid system in the nation.

Foster youths have an additional problem. Most children can call their parents when they need a place to stay, or when they need support. Foster youths don’t have that lifeline. We should make sure all foster youths know that if they want to go to college, or get job training, we will help them with tuition, fees and a place to live. Alaska’s college aid plan, the second-worst in the nation, needs to be fixed for all youths.

• Prevent homelessness. The state provides minimal funding for youths coming out of care. They get a month’s rent, and then a half-month’s rent for two months. If you’re 18, have no parent or caring adult to call for support, you need a hand getting on your feet. That’s just a fact of life.

We should let foster youths know we’ll help them with basic housing their first year coming out of care if they need it. And we should offer a steadier hand, in terms of mentoring, to steer them towards the success they want. Parents do this for most children. Foster youths don’t have this “luxury.”

And, though we have a chronic shortage of foster parents, we should allow foster youths, if they have a good foster home, to stay until age 21 if they feel they need the support. Ending foster care and health coverage at age 19, and then putting youth out on the street with no parental support, just isn’t working.

The governor says “we have to live within our means.” We agree. But we disagree if that means the solution for every aspect of state policy is to do what we did last year. Not when real solutions are cost effective, and cheaper than less important projects that always find their way into Alaska’s $7 billion budget.

Things need to change. Keeping them the same costs too much, both financially and to our moral standing.

Rep. Les Gara is an Anchorage Democrat, and grew up in foster care. He can be reached at rep.les.gara@legis.state.ak.us. Amanda Metivier of Anchorage lived in foster care, is coordinator of Facing Foster Care Alaska and recently earned her social work degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

2009 Mar 8