Two hours before 18-year-old Anna Redmon was supposed to graduate from high school, she said she was "freaking out," not because of typical graduation jitters, but because she still had online classes to finish before she could call herself a graduate.
The Anchorage teen had spent about six years in the foster care system beginning in 2005. She moved multiple times and had been separated from her mother and 11 siblings. Now, the soon-to-be member of the armed forces said she was able to graduate and stay in touch with her family only because of the Laptops for Foster Youth program.
"(The program) was needed," said program organizer and state Rep. Les Gara. "The state is not giving computers to these youth and the state is their legal guardian. We want kids to end up in professions -- not jail."
Gara, D-Anchorage, launched the Laptops for Foster Youth project with Amanda Metivier, a former foster youth who now runs the nonprofit Facing Foster Care in Alaska. To date, they have supplied 350 laptops to youth in state custody -- far short of the more than 2,000 children living in state care.
According to Gara, there currently aren't enough laptops, which are donated by the public, for the 2,049 minors in state custody.
"It's a constant need but it's growing as the number of foster youth in the state has spiked," Gara said. "Most kids have to do their homework by going online, and in addition, they get separated from their families and the only way to see their family is through pictures on the computer. They need a way to connect to people, and that is usually through email."
According to data collected by the state, the number of Alaska children in out-of-home placement, which includes children in the foster care system as well as children removed from their homes and sent to live with a relative, has been steadily climbing. Kim Guay, chief welfare officer with the state Office of Children's Services, said about 60 percent of those youth are Alaska Native.
Guay said it's common for the numbers to fluctuate, but with the state's rising population, the spike in the number of children in out-of-home placement is no surprise.
During May 2013, 1,909 youth were in out-of-home placement, and four years ago, in 2010, 1,895 youth were, according to the state data. Guay added that the reports of severity of abuse and neglect have gotten worse, which she credits in part to alcohol and drug abuse in Alaska.
"The first thing we do is look into looking into the report if there is an element of abuse or neglect," said Guay. "We go out and investigate and we also make a determination if they are safe or not safe. If we find they are unsafe, we at least try and keep them with the family, but that is not always a possibility."
Redmon said she still doesn't know why she was taken away from her family nine years ago. She said one day the Office of Children's Services just showed up and took her away. She said there was a lot of yelling and chaos but nothing "that bad" when it happened. After that, she bounced from home to home, moving from school to school and bouncing between school books until she was about 16, when she was able to go home again.
"There was one time I was placed with my siblings; the other times I was all alone," Redmon said. "I mean it didn't totally suck like everyone said. Some of them (foster families) cared, some of them didn't. Some just did it for the money, others really cared for the kids."
Foster families get paid on a per-day basis depending on the number and age of the children they take in, as well as the circumstances that led them to out-of-home placement.
When Redmon was alone, she stayed in touch with her family online using Facebook or Skype. And in the weeks leading up to her graduation she took classes like art history, college prep and psychology online, along with the classes she was taking at Anchorage Vocational Academic Institute of Learning, or AVAIL.
But Redmon graduated, and on time. Now, she is working to join the U.S. Army. She said the decision to enlist "just felt right."
Gara said anyone interested in donating a laptop is encouraged to call him at 907-269-0106.
"You know, it helps for a lot of reasons," Redmon said of the laptop program. "It helps with school, it helps you stay in touch, but it also gives you something to call your own -- and that means a lot in itself."