Compass: Bill would make sure foster kids have a chance to live with good relatives

A shortage of foster homes and high caseloads among state social workers result in children bouncing between temporary foster homes. It's no secret that the state doesn't make the best parent. Children suffer -- struggling to attach to each new foster family, falling behind in their education, and costing society even more in high crime rates and reliance on public assistance as adults.

How do we improve our state's overburdened child protection system? There is no "one-size-fit-all" solution. There are smaller changes we can make to work toward improving our child protection system, and these efforts have been under way for several years now. Identifying family members early on, to prevent children from drifting through our state's foster care system, is one step in the right direction.

House Bill 54, sponsored by Rep. Les Gara and Rep. Steve Thompson, offers a simple, common-sense solution to prevent abused and neglected children from being placed with strangers in the foster care system. It offers children and youth a chance at success and an opportunity to remain with extended family members. If passed, House Bill 54 would require an extensive relative search be completed during the first 30 days a child is removed from their home.

While current law requires this search, it is sometimes not done completely. This bill calls for a fail-safe in the system, so children don't get left behind and placed with strangers, often in less-than-ideal foster homes, when a thorough search would have found a great relative to raise the child. The bill would ensure compliance by asking that a supervisor signs off that the search was completed.

A recent state-commissioned study confirmed what we all know. The state's child protection system is understaffed, leading to less than ideal youth protection, success and outcomes. It also leads to a less than ideal ability to detect child abuse and neglect. Overworked, and new social workers -- who burn out at a rate of about 30 percent in their first year -- sometimes aren't able to do a comprehensive family search, and the lives of youth are altered for the worse, in a system that faces a chronic shortage of quality foster parents. A fail-safe to ensure this work is properly done will reduce cases we know of where good family placements have been missed.

There are foster youth who spend over a decade bouncing between homes, communities and schools. These youth will leave the system without ever having been connected to a permanent family and struggle in adulthood.

The need to keep children connected to family is urgent. Placing foster children and youth with relatives could be the difference between jail and high school graduation.

If identifying relatives early is good for children, why wouldn't we support this? Keeping children connected with family is the right thing to do.

Amanda Metivier is the director of Facing Foster Care in Alaska, holds a master's in social work, is graduate of Alaska's foster care system and was recently named one of Alaska's Top 40 Under 40 by the Alaska Journal of Commerce.