Alaska – Governor signs foster care reform bill into law

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Governor Sean Parnell signed House Bill 126 into law Tuesday night.

The bill caps off a package of foster care reforms aimed at supporting the nearly 2,000 foster youths in Alaska.

The legislative intent of the bill is “to secure for each child the care and guidance, preferably in the child’s own home, as well as an adequate education, that will serve the moral, emotional, mental, intellectual, and physical welfare of the child and the best interests of the community; to preserve and strengthen the child’s family ties unless efforts to preserve and strengthen the ties are likely to result in physical or emotional damage to the child, removing the child from the custody of the parents only as a last resort when the child’s welfare or safety or the protection of the public cannot be adequately safeguarded without removal; and, when the child is removed from the family, to secure for the child adequate custody, education, and care and adequate planning for permanent placement of the child.”

“Today roughly 40% of foster youth end up homeless at some point in their lives after leaving foster care,” the bill’s sponsor Rep. Les Gara explains.

“It is estimated that less than 10% of our foster youth graduate from college. Foster youth end up in jail and on state-paid social services, and in social service treatment in greater numbers than their peers. Tolerating this costs Alaskans in terms of money, lost economic activity and human opportunity,” Gara notes.

The bill allows youths to remain in foster care until they turn 21, and it requires that they be allowed to remain in their current school when they suffer a foster family placement change. It also provides for housing assistance.

The bill goes into effect January 1, 2011.

I commend Les Gara for his efforts on behalf of foster children. His bills address many of the concerns advocates hold, including the industry’s tendency to “emancipate” children onto the streets when they reach the age of 18.

It is gratifying to see legislation that clarifies that it is the intent of the legislature that child removal should be used “only as a last resort” when all other reasonable efforts have failed to ensure a child’s safety.

Alaska has been in need of reform for decades, and it is the state’s aboriginal population that primarily bears the brunt of child removals.

According to the Alaska Judicial Council, during the mid-1990s, 46 percent of the children in the custody of the State Division of Family and Youth Services were Alaskan Native children. In Anchorage, Fairbanks and Sitka, roughly one-third of “Child in Need of Aid” cases involved Native children. In Bethel, this figure had soared to an incredible 98 percent.

Writing in Alaska Law Review, Sheri L. Hazeltine explains that “rates of termination of parental rights and adoption of children from Alaska state foster care have exploded in recent years.” The dramatic increase “resulted from new and stricter child protection laws passed by the Alaska Legislature in 1998 that make it easier to terminate Alaska Native and non-Native parental rights. The legislature passed these new child protection statutes to conform with the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.”

Hazeltine explains that while it had been crafted to solve the problem of foster care drift, the new legislation instead resulted in other consequences, among them that the number of adoptive homes for children did not appear to have kept pace with the increase in terminations of parental rights, in turn creating a “cadre of legal orphans” – children legally severed from their natural parents without an adoptive home.

Hazeltine notes that “the aforementioned outcomes directly conflict with the ICWA’s definition of the best interests of the Indian child and the ICWA’s goal of promoting the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.”

Hopefully the recently crafted bills sponsored by Gara will help. Time will only tell.