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Foster care bill tells the state to never give up on finding families for kids

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published April 10, 2016

Finally, at age 19, Anchorage's Rachel Bedsworth is tight with foster parents.

Never mind that she's been moved 47 times to dozens of different foster homes and a few group homes. Or that she's been in care since she was 7 years old.

She puts some of that churned life on herself. But a state lawmaker who himself grew up in foster care sees a system too overwhelmed to give proper attention to the lives of individual children and especially older youths now in care.

Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat from Anchorage, is once again pushing foster care reforms to change that. And he's again teamed up with Amanda Metivier, a former foster child turned reformer -- and foster parent.

Gara's legislation, House Bill 27, cleared the Republican-controlled state House 37 to 0. With about a week to go in the regular legislative session, the bill is set for a committee hearing in the Senate on Monday.

"We're treating kids like Ping-Pong balls where they bounce from one family to another family," Gara said in an interview. Bedsworth's situation is extreme but advocates say she's not the only one who has lived with dozens of families without finding a loving parent.

"That's a form of child neglect in itself," Gara said.

Older foster kids

Children's cases already generate a complex matrix of deadlines and court reviews. Gara's HB 27 adds to that. The measure calls for judges to check quarterly that caseworkers are still looking for a permanent home for all children in care, even when they turn 19 or 20. It puts fresh emphasis on foster parent recruitment and especially on turning to relatives and family friends. And it directs the state to generally keep foster children in the same school if they are moved to a new foster home.

The measure has support from the Alaska Children's Trust and Facing Foster Care in Alaska, the advocacy group founded and led by Metivier for current and former foster children and youths.

Gara's own experience growing up with the same New York foster family was remarkably stable. Over the last decade, he's put into law a number of reforms aimed at providing a less disruptive and more healing experience for Alaska foster children and support for those aging out of care. He advocates for lower caseloads for workers and collects laptops for foster kids.

His latest bill isn't revolutionary, "but I think it provides further clarity on some issues and certainly the recognition that we have young people in care who are no longer children," said Christie Lawton, director of the state Office of Children's Services

A provision that allows the state to place older foster youths in a dorm -- something beyond a licensed foster or group home -- is significant, she said.

Out of more than 2,900 foster children and youths in the Alaska system as of February, 390 were 15 or older and 67 were 18 and older.

Persistence praised

When Gara's latest foster care reforms reached the House floor April 1, Democrats and Republicans alike took time to praise him for his persistence. Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage and the majority leader, called him a champion. The state needs this safety net, she said. Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, called foster care "a necessary evil."

As legislators all pressed their buttons to vote yes, Bedsworth was watching online from her Anchorage foster home.

"Oh my gosh," she thought. "We are actually doing something."

Yet some lawmakers underscored that the system for troubled families is troubled too. His voice cracking, Rep. Lance Pruitt, another Anchorage Republican, spoke about a 4-year-old in his district whose case, he said, was mismanaged. The push to ensure children get safe foster homes is the right strategy but isn't enough, he said.

"We've got to make sure that if we say 'yes' today and this moves forward, we don't allow the conversation to end there. There really is a broken system," he said.

Child welfare cases involve complex family dynamics and no state has figured out the best approach, Lawton said after the vote. Act too aggressively and children are taken from parents needlessly. Leave children in troubled homes and face the risk that some will be hurt or even killed.

The state is trying to work with some 3,000 foster children and 2,000 parents -- 5,000 people "that don't want our services," Lawton said. "It's by nature a controversial and complicated relationship that for more than half our families ends in success. They get their kids back."

Special challenges

Teens and young adults can be especially challenging wards for the state and for foster parents.

The requirement that the state must continue to search for a permanent home will help, Metivier said.

"Especially for older youth, the youth that I work with a lot. They tend to linger in the system longer, so this creates some accountability," Metivier said. "The state can't give up, the state can't quit, in trying to find a permanent family."

Metivier, who was in foster care for three years, and her husband, Anthony Hernandez, who grew up in the Texas system, are a tuned-in couple who know the system inside and out.

"I messed up really bad at her house," Bedsworth said. Yet she longed for a family.

Bedsworth, now a student at University of Alaska Anchorage, said she doesn't want or expect Metivier and Hernandez to adopt her but is embracing life with them: taco Tuesdays and TV nights, hanging out and talking about the good and the bad. It means so much knowing she can turn to them for help, and they'll do it because they care, not for pay.

"I love Amanda and Gibby," she said, using her foster dad's nickname. "I love being there. We're a family now."

Many foster teens bounce from one temporary home after another, Metivier said. They fantasize about a good life with their parents, a life that never was and, for many, will never be. They give up on themselves, mistrust most adults and sabotage placements by acting up in extreme ways, she said.

"I'm seeing now more than I ever have teenagers who have been in the system 5, 10, 15 even 18 years," Metivier said.

But it's never too late, she said.

"The families that do best with teens are the one that act like normal families," she said. "Just welcome them into their home like anyone else."

Homelessness and couch surfing

Bedsworth said she cycled through homes for various reasons. She didn't know how to be a kid because she was so used to fending for herself. She ran away trying to get back with her parents. Later she began skipping school, smoking pot, hanging out with other troubled kids, she said.

In a sense, the state is the parent of foster kids. Gara said he keeps pushing so that when they exit the system, they don't end up in prison or homeless.

"We have to give these children a real shot at opportunity, a real shot at a loving home, and do something better than expect a 20 percent incarceration rate, a 20 percent homelessness rate, and a 20 percent couch surfing rate," Gara said.

That's Metivier's point too.

"We wouldn't be responsible adults if we didn't keep trying to find families for children, right?"

Sarah Redmon, a former foster youth who is now 22, said she still wants a family to connect with, someone she can call in the middle of the night, who can help with a flat tire or co-sign for an apartment.

"I'm still trying to find it," she said. "I'm still looking."

Specifics of the bill

House Bill 27, which Gara introduced at the start of 2015, calls for:

• New double-checks to ensure workers never give up on looking for a permanent home for a child or young person. In already required quarterly reports, a caseworker would have to demonstrate to a judge that the state has made reasonable efforts to find that home. The judge would have to make a specific finding that happened. And if it hadn't, the judge would have to order the worker to do more.

"And you have to come back and show you did it," Gara said of the worker.

• New emphasis on family and friends. If a child is moved out of one foster home, the state must look for a relative or family friend as a replacement.

• More options for older foster youths. As it is, Alaskans can stay in foster care until age 21, under legislation that Gara got through several years back. The new measure would give control over that to 19- and 20-year-olds. It says they only can be released from foster care if they want to get out and agree it's time. It also would direct workers to keep looking for adoptive families even after the person turns 18.

• More options for the state. It would allow the state to place foster kids 16 or older in a college dorm or and other transitional living arrangement.

• More of an effort to actively recruit foster parents.

• More stability in schools. If a foster child is moved from one home to another mid-school term, the state would need to keep the child in the same school and cover the transportation costs, much like is already done for homeless children who may take cabs to school.

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