Alaska’s foster care system is getting an upgrade.

That comes thanks to a new law ushered in by outgoing Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage) and signed Thursday by Gov. Bill Walker.

This bill, House Bill 151, is called The Children Deserve a Loving Home Act.

Gara received broad support to establish new caseworker standards in the state’s Office of Children’s Services.

The new law places such limits as the average statewide caseload limit not exceeding 13 per worker.

It also mandates six weeks of training for new caseworkers and further limits their caseloads.  

Gara pushed his foster care legislation across the finish line in the final days of the legislative session last month.

On Thursday, Walker made it official-- flanked by some of Gara’s House colleagues and about 30 youth who have spent time in the state’s foster care system.

“I think it’s a huge relief. It’s been a long time coming,” said Amanda Metivier, founder of Facing Foster Care in Alaska. “There have been lots of efforts over the last decade or so to reform our foster care system. This is biggest piece of child welfare legislation Alaska has ever passed.

“We are going to see less of a need for foster care when caseworkers can do meaningful social work and move children toward permanency or get families the resources they need on the front end so they don’t have to move children.”

Gara recently announced he will not be running for re-election.

He’s spent much of his 16 years in office advocating for changes in the state’s foster care system. Even as Gara spent time in a foster home as a child, he said Alaska’s foster care kids made the difference by meeting with lawmakers in Juneau.

“It’s never been about me being in the foster care system,” he said. “I knew the subject well, so I thought I could explain it to the Legislature. Then, little did I know with 50 youth coming down, that they could explain it to the Legislature better than I could. So, we sort of became a team.

“These youth came together and they got a bill passed that isn’t necessarily going to change their lives. It’s going to changes the lives of the youth after them. For a group of youth who don’t have a lobbyist, they had to be their own lobbyist.”

The new law also requires the sharing of contact information so that siblings living in separate foster care homes can stay connected with those in other homes. The bill also allows foster parents to make day-to-day decisions for youth about sports, vacations, or other activities without clearing them through their caseworker.

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