• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
5m 33s

Battle brews over state’s foster care system

By Rhonda McBride 10:55 PM December 6, 2013

Pressure stems from Parnell's soon-to-be-released budget

ANCHORAGE - Gov. Sean Parnell’s budget for the coming year will be released next week, and the pressure is on. Everyone wants a bigger share of state funding.

Two Anchorage Democrats are calling on the governor to help keep Alaska’s children safer by increasing the number of jobs at the state Office of Children’s Services.

Reps. Geran Tarr and Les Gara want the governor to follow the recommendations of a state-commissioned report, which said social workers are overburdened and need more support staff — such as clerical help, licensing assistants and a position called a “social services associate.”

The associates perform a range of tasks, from overseeing parent-child visits to driving children to various locations. In many OCS offices across the state, caseworkers must do their jobs without these assistants, which means they have less time to spend with the children.

The study recommends 41 new positions, which Gara estimates will cost the state an additional $3 million a year.

Gara said the governor has been sitting on the study for two years and didn’t release it until after the last session.

“That study should be implemented and not shelved,” Gara said. “We’re asking him to put it in the budget this year and just take out some pet project which costs about the same amount of money.”

A group called “Facing Foster Care in Alaska,” which is made up of adults who were raised in the state’s foster care system, backs Gara and Tarr’s efforts to create more back-up for social workers.

“For an overburdened social worker, just having an assistant or an office staffer make copies (of paperwork) and transport families makes all the difference in the world to the families they are actually serving,” said Amanda Metevier, who helped found the foster care advocacy group.

Without adequate support staff, Metevier believes it’s hard for a social worker to be effective.

“You could have the most highly trained social worker with a bachelor or even a master’s degree,” Metevier said. “But if they don’t have time to do the job, then they just can’t do it.”

At the Anchorage Office of Children’s Services, there are 80 caseworkers. The report recommends one social services associate and one clerical staffer for a group of four social workers.  But at the Anchorage office, ten caseworkers share those two assistants.

Becca Shier, who represents Facing Foster Care in Alaska at the state level, was in foster care for eight years and had four different social workers.

“I really wished I was able to grow a more personal and stronger relationship with my social workers,” Shier said, who wasn’t able to put her trust in them because of the high turnover.

Shier believes the social workers assigned to her case were good people, but they were just too busy to help her and often skimped on their required monthly visits.

Shier recalls a time when she had a chance encounter with her caseworker at the Sears Mall where she worked.

“I was on my lunch break at the ATM in the mall, and one of my social workers came up to me and talked to me — and I later found out that she counted that as a monthly visit,” she said.

Shier believes more staff support would give social workers more time to listen to the children and weed out potentially bad foster parents. Since joining FFCA, Shier has heard stories from other former foster children about how some of the foster parents abused the system. She remembers a case in which a foster parent spent state money on herself, rather than the child.

“Allegedly the foster parent kept spending the money on cigarettes and soda, a bunch of other stuff, and wasn’t buying her clothes for school,” Shier said. “Not having clothes for school and having to wear the same pants for two weeks when you’re in high school is embarrassing. And it still hurts the child.”

There were other stories about the lack of food in some foster homes or kids being bullied by another youth in the home — abuses Shier believes are more common than physical or sexual abuse, but still cause emotional harm.

Foster children are vulnerable to begin with, Shier said.

“We grow up in a situation where the two people who are supposed to love you more than anything in the world failed you essentially, your parents,” Shier said.

Social workers could potentially help restore a child’s faith in adults, Shier said. But she learned early on that she couldn’t count on them. Besides the missed appointments, they seemed just too busy to really listen.

If the governor doesn’t put more money in the budget to fund more support staff, it will cause serious harm to children, Gara said.

“The study says the state is going to keep missing neglect cases, going to keep missing child abuse cases,” Gara said.

The governor’s spokesperson, Sharon Leighow, won’t say whether there is money in the budget for the new positions. But she did say the governor is committed to protecting “vulnerable” Alaskans and will work with lawmakers to find answers.

Christy Lawton, director for the Office of Children’s Services, agrees that the new positions would be a big help but also understands the governor’s mandate not to “grow government.” She praised Parnell for finding ways to shift money from other programs to benefit children, as well as his efforts to improve social worker recruitment and retention.

When Parnell launched his “Choose Respect” campaign, he became the first governor in state history to declare an official war on domestic violence and sexual assault. He has also increased funding for Village Public Safety Officers and has two staffers in his office, tasked with working on these issues across different state agencies.

“You know the governor says he’s all about choosing respect,” Gara said. “I’m all about choosing respect. But you don’t pick who you chose respect for. Foster kids count.”

As a former foster child, Gara frequently campaigns for more foster care services. But Gara’s critics say his latest move amounts to political grandstanding, especially since it comes before the budget is even out.

One of Gara’s fellow Democrats, Sen. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage, believes there’s nothing wrong with Gara’s tactics, that he is using the only means available to the minority in the legislature to bring about change — which is to take the issue to the public.

The governor’s budget comes out Thursday, Dec. 15, as required by the state constitution.

Latest Stories

  • News

    Alaska Native Heritage Center celebrates cultural visionaries

    by Liz Raines on Nov 29, 13:40

    The Alaska Native Heritage Center celebrated its sixth annual Visionary Awards Saturday night, as part of Alaska Native Heritage Month. Organizers say the goal was to showcase individuals that nurture and promote culture in their own unique way that is enticing to younger generations. Five Native Alaskan artists — Byron Nicholai, Samuel Johns, Allison Warden, […]

  • News

    Quiltmakers donate patchwork to benefit Alaska’s foster children

    by Eric Ruble on Nov 29, 12:11

    On Saturday, about 100 quiltmakers decided to donate their hard work in an effort to help others. A total of 217 quilts were on display at the University Center mall. All were up for sale via a silent auction to benefit Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. The organization’s Alaska chapter helps abused and neglected […]

  • News

    Thousands turn out for 2015 Police Navidad

    by Eric Ruble on Nov 29, 11:31

    An estimated 6,000 people filled the Dena’ina Center Saturday for the fifth annual Police Navidad. The free festival is a chance for the Anchorage Police and Fire Departments to get to know their community in a “non-crisis” environment, says Dani Myren with the APD Employees Association. About 200 people were volunteering Saturday, many of which […]

  • News

    SmallBizSat: Anchorage business boasts local expertise as key to compete

    by Liz Raines on Nov 28, 19:01

    On Small Business Saturday, locally owned Skinny Raven Sports says it saw a big boost from last year’s sales. “There’s been a lot of feet through the door, which is awesome,” said general manager Ben Stolpman. “It shows that people value small business.” Despite the fact that you can find almost all of the products […]

  • Sports

    At Great AK Shootout, Wiggs lifts Seawolves to 71-65 win over Drexel

    by Jake Edmonds on Nov 28, 14:08

    The University of Alaska Anchorage men’s basketball team earned a second round win in the GCI Great Alaska Shootout Friday, defeating Drexel 71-65. The Seawolves were led by the junior stand-out Suki Wiggs, who had 33 points in the win. Wiggs is proving to be a huge asset for head coach Rusty Osbourne and the […]

  • News

    In Fairbanks, borough suspends ride share payments after no one signs up

    by Associated Press on Nov 28, 12:25

    Residents aren’t getting on board with ride sharing in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports (http://bit.ly/1YzWBoS) borough officials and Enterprise Holdings have agreed to suspend payments for a program that no one has signed up for since the company was hired in September 2014. Borough transportation manager Adam Barth says he […]

  • Crime

    Anchorage police seek wanted man, Dajon Hale

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Nov 28, 11:58

    The Anchorage Police Department is asking for the public’s help finding 26-year-old Dajon Hale, who currently has two felony warrants for his arrest. Police say in June, Hale was pulled over for speeding in a construction zone in the area of E. 56th Avenue and Lake Otis Parkway. The officer then discovered Hale was on probation […]

  • News

    Red Cross of Alaska speaks out for Giving Tuesday

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Nov 27, 22:48

    After Thanksgiving, shoppers have a number of opportunities to save big: first there’s Black Friday, then Small Business Saturday and finally, Cyber Monday. Many use the sales in stores and online as a chance to get deals on Christmas presents for their loved ones, but the Red Cross of Alaska says Giving Tuesday is another […]