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Foster care bill expected to die in House

By Rhonda McBride 9:14 AM April 17, 2014

No one knows when lawmakers will gavel out of the 2014 legislative session; whether it will happen on Saturday night, the 89th day of the session, as Senate President Charlie Huggins has announced, or whether it goes through Easter Sunday or perhaps into overtime.

But one thing everyone does know: Hundreds of bills will not survive the session, and Rep. Les Gara’s bill aimed at helping foster children is likely on its way to the legislative graveyard.

Sessions run in two-year cycles, and legislation which does not pass in the second year dies.

Gara crafted House Bill 54 after hearing numerous complaints from relatives of children in foster care, as well as young people who have been in the system.

They say the Office of Children’s Services does not follow their own policy, which requires social workers to search for relatives of children once they enter foster care.

In March, a group of young people who are members of the group Facing Foster Care in Alaska went to Juneau to lobby for the passage of HB 54. Among them were Shawn and Shane Fortune, both 18, who also happen to be twins.

They had an alcoholic mother who neglected them.

“She wasn’t able to take care of herself, so she wasn’t able to take care of us,” Shawn said. “She wouldn’t feed me, Shane, or buy us clothes.”

“I am very thankful for OCS, the Office of Children’s Services,” Shawn said. “Because now that we’re in foster care, and that our lives have improved and we’re not going to be alcoholics and we have goals in our life.”

Shane is one minute older than Shawn. Although they are identical twins, he’s slightly taller than his younger brother.

Although Shane and his twin are grateful to OCS, they said they wish the state agency could have done more to help them find other relatives. Their father and mother split when they were small, so they know little about their own family.

“They didn’t do any research to try to find a relative for us to live with,” Shane said. “Except they probably did what was easier for them.”

Still, the twins feel they were lucky because they were able to stay together.

“Many foster homes do not want to take twins, because they are a lot of work and trouble,” Shane said.

“I don’t know what I’d do without Shawn in my life,” he said. “If he went away, I’d be very lonely.”

Members of the foster care advocacy group don’t blame social workers when they fail to follow through on family searches.

“They have the tools. They have the knowledge. They just don’t have the manpower to do it. They need more people,” said Nevaeh Ingham, a 21-year-old college student enrolled in the University of Alaska Anchorage’s automotive program.

Ingham and her younger sister were separated when they entered foster care. Ingham believes they might have been able to stay together had a relative been found.

“We are not as close as I’d like to be. We are working on it,” Ingham said. “Because of lack of contact and communication, I simply lost my little sister.”

Ingham had nothing but praise for her social worker.

“She was a great social worker. She did everything in her power, but I was aware I was not the only kid on her case,” Ingham said. “So she did the best she could with what she had.”

Helping improve the foster care system is a personal cause for Gara, an Anchorage Democrat.

Gara’s father was murdered when he was six. His mother and father were separated and Gara was living with his father at the time of his death. His mother had immigrated to Israel, so Gara wound up in foster care.

Gara said his family was not the best fit, but they did impart a work ethic that serves him well today; one he channels towards improving the state’s foster care system.

“We still have a massive shortage of parents,” Gara said. “And sometimes the state misses relatives who would be good foster parents.”

Gara said social workers are overstressed.

“They have too many cases for too few social workers,” Gara said.

Gara said he believes his bill would put some checks and balances into the process. It would put a requirement in state statute that a search for extended family members be completed within 30 days of a child’s removal from a home.

HB 54 would make a supervisor sign off that a thorough search has occurred.

Gara said a state law has more force than an agency policy, which can change as department heads come and go.

Rep. Craig Johnson, who heads up the powerful House Rules Committee, has said he doesn’t plan on scheduling the bill for a vote on the House floor.

Johnson has concerns the bill duplicates existing policies and would add more bureaucracy to an already overburdened foster care system.

Rebecca Shier, one of the leaders of Facing Foster Care in Alaska, doesn’t agree.

Shier, who is now 23, grew up in a series of foster homes and wonders if she might have been better off with a relative. She also said she went through a series of social workers. Shier said she knows firsthand about high turnover at OCS and poor follow-up on requirements, such as the search for relatives and visitation with siblings and family members.

“I believe it would save the state money,” Shier said. “It would keep foster youth from moving around as much.”

Shier believes HB 54 not only adds accountability to the process but requires social workers to explore a child’s options more thoroughly, as well as consider what the child wants.

The bill also requires the state to search for other adults, such as family friends or someone significant in a child’s life, to find out if they might be willing to care for a child.

Shier said a coach or youth pastor might be willing to take the child in.

Under the bill, any prospects for foster care parents would have to meet state licensing requirements.  Nevaeh Ingham said she’s not angry with the foster care system.

“I’m simply disappointed, but I have hope because of HB 54,” she said. “That’s our answer. That will prevent future kids and current kids to not have to suffer as I did.”

That answer might be a long time in coming. But Gara said if the bill doesn’t advance to the House floor, he won’t give up.

If the bill doesn’t get passed this session, Gara will have to introduce a new bill and go through the entire process again.

“If the bill doesn’t go forward, that’s one step backwards for foster youth,” Gara said. “But I’ll come back next year and keep pushing.”

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