State focus on fixing Alaska's foster care system
The month of May, which is National Foster Care Month, is over, but the state's work on improving foster care in Alaska is just beginning.
This past session, the legislature approved a massive overhaul of the state's foster care system. Now, House Bill 151 is making its way to the governor's desk for a signature.
That reform will affect thousands of children in foster care in Alaska. According to the state's website, on average, about 3,000 children in Alaska are in foster care each month. But it's the statistics about what happens to those children later in life that inspired lawmakers to make a change.
Representative Les Gara (D-Anchorage), who sponsored the legislation says in Alaska, half of the foster children end up homeless at some point; 26 percent end up in jail. Numbers he says are on par with national trends. He says Alaska's current foster care program is in crisis with heavy case-loads and limited resources.
HB 151 will mandate six weeks of training for new caseworkers, as well as limit caseloads for new workers. It will also enforce a state-wide average caseload limit of 13 families per worker. The bill also allows children 14 and up to participate in their case plan, requires certification that relative searches have been completed and advocates for the sharing of contact information -- so siblings can reach out to each other.
"It should be customer service, not crisis management," Rep. Gara said. "They did it in New Jersey, they were forced to by the courts, and I'm proud of this legislature for saying 'let's do it voluntarily without the courts forcing us to.'"
The bill hasn't made it to the governor's desk yet, but Gara is confident Gov. Walker will sign it as the governor endorsed the measure.
Gara said the average caseloads vary. He says the worst he was aware of was in Wasilla -- before the state added positions last year. The average caseload in the spring of 2017 was 43 cases per worker; that's the average. He said some had as many as 50.
Questions or comments about this story? Email reporter Daniella Rivera.
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