By Dave Donaldson
Governor Parnell this week put the finishing touch on a large reform of the state’s Foster Care system by signing the last of the a series of statutory and budget changes that will give young people a better chance of success as adults.
The improvement in the foster care system managed by the Office of Childrens’ Services was led by Anchorage Democrat Les Gara, who knows from his own childhood what it is like to be in foster care. But he says – as the most recent bill passed unanimously in both the House and Senate — he had a lot of help.
You know, it’s all good. And you know, it started out as maybe just a few of us pushing. And by the end, we got good consensus across the legislature. I’m happy and now we just have to make sure it works. That’s the part, just to make sure that government is able to implement the rules. And I think they will.
Before Gara took on the task of educating people about foster care, Alaska was considered to be doing a poor job of looking out for the kids under its care. But he pointed out that the state is the legal guardian of kids that have been separated from their natural parents. He says it’s not enough only to yank a kid out of his home.
Amanda Metivier was one of the kids in the system at the time. She went on to found the group Facing Foster Care in Alaska – while getting her university degree at the same time.
For youth that age out in Alaska, about thirty seven percent end up homeless – about thirty percent within the first year. And then the national average for youth who end up homeless after care, depending on what state you look at and where, it’s twelve to twenty five percent. So our numbers are higher.
She said that homelessness is only one of the bad outcomes for many people. The can live on the streets, they can go directly on public assistance – or they can go into the justice system … prison. The bill signed this week extends the foster care age limit – from twenty to twenty one years old. It also allows those who have left the system to return if they need to. That strategy has resulted in dramatic improvements in other states.
But that’s only one of the changes that have been written into other Alaska laws and into the budget. There’s money to set up a mentoring system for those who leave the system – other adults who can help them get started in life. And the state will expand a program to train the youth for life skills, like finding housing, or going to college. Metivier says higher education is also included by increasing the number of tuition waivers.
Previously, only ten waivers were given out each year and we a little over a hundred youth who age out. And so, just expanding it to twenty waivers a year gives more youth a chance to pursue higher education. And there’s also funds for job training, vocational training.
Gara recognizes the legislature has done all it needs to do right now for the system. He says the next job is to make sure the changes work.
We’re going to create opportunity for foster youth that fits on paper, and we want to make sure that it gets implemented. I think the folks at OCS are eager to make it work. I think the folks at the University we’ve spoken to are eager to make it work. So this summer’s work is to make sure everything gets implemented and youth are given the opportunities they deserve.
Gara says the legislature even took what might be the most important step of all – money to advertise and promote the idea of becoming a foster parent. There are not enough. And Gara says the best thing for the kids is to give them a safe home with parents who care about them.