Alaska is in the midst of a statewide foster family shortage, a problem that advocates say has become increasingly urgent over the last year.
The state currently has a lower number of licensed foster homes than is typical, Clinton Bennett, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said in an emailed statement this week.
There are a total of about 1,391 foster homes in Alaska as of this week, or 284 fewer homes than there were in February 2020, he said.
This April in particular saw “one of the highest amount of closures (the Office of Children’s Services) has experienced,” Bennett said — 76 licensed foster homes either closed their licenses or allowed their license to expire during that month alone.
The number of homes that officially lost their licenses is likely an undercount of the number of foster homes lost overall because many other homes have stopped accepting children even though they remain licensed, said Amanda Metivier, associate director of the Alaska Child Welfare Academy and co-founder of Facing Foster Care, an organization in Alaska that serves foster youths.
The Office of Children’s Services has found “no connections directly linking the lack of foster homes to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bennett said in an email.
However, Metivier says based on her experience, the pandemic has had an impact on foster care — a dynamic that has also been seen on a national level.
Even before the pandemic, Alaska was experiencing a relative shortage of foster homes, said Metivier.
“And then when COVID hit, it really exacerbated the situation,” she said.
Many former or potential foster families became fearful of contracting COVID-19, particularly if anyone in the home had health conditions that put them at a higher risk for severe illness from the virus, Metivier said.
The disruptions of virtual learning, working from home and economic uncertainty were also likely responsible for the drop-off in foster homes, Metivier added.
Metivier said that older foster youths tend to have a particularly difficult time finding placements — and that this trend has become even more pronounced during the pandemic.
“Adolescence is a really challenging time,” she said. “I’ve seen more older youth in foster care places like Covenant House and other shelter settings than I’ve ever seen.”
She said that the problem has been particularly bad in Anchorage, where half of the state’s foster homes are located, even though many of the youths who come to Anchorage are originally from smaller communities all over the state.
Overall, the shortage is taking a toll on the youths who are part of the system, Metivier said.
“What’s happening now is basically, (youths) go wherever there’s an open bed,” she said. “And so that might not always be the perfect fit, or it might be people who are just willing to do a temporary, 30-day emergency placement.”
The frequent moves can be hard on youths, who often have to change schools and adjust to new home lives and new rules.
“It’s like this constant adapting to those situations, which creates more complex trauma on top of trauma that’s already been experienced,” Metivier said.
The Anchorage Assembly recently approved a proposal to allocate $200,000 to Metivier’s organization for an ad campaign to help recruit more foster families as part of a $51.6 million pandemic relief package.
Les Gara, a former state representative and former foster youth who volunteers with Facing Foster Care in Alaska, helped Metivier draft the funding proposal.
Gara said he hopes that Alaskans who are willing and able consider signing up to foster Alaska youths.
“For foster families, it always has to be the right time in their lives to do it,” he said.
Other than timing, to be a good foster parent, “I think all you have to do is care that a child has the same opportunity in life that other children have — the same chance at happiness, the same chances to succeed,” he said.
For information on how to become a foster parent in Alaska, visit acrf.org/foster or reach out to the Alaska Center for Resource Families at 907-479-7307.