A new look at the number of Alaska children in foster care finds that despite a push to reduce the count, that hasn't happened and the number of Alaska Native children in care remains shockingly high.
During the study period from 2006 to 2013, about 2,000 Alaska children were in foster care any given month, and 60 percent were Alaska Native, according to the new report by researchers with the Institute of Social and Economic Research, part of the University of Alaska Anchorage.
One Alaska child out of 100 is in foster care because of dangers and dysfunction at home. That's double the national proportion, the report found.
The statistics, though well-known to those who work in the system, still are alarming, said the top child protection official in Alaska.
"It is a great report in that it does really synthesize these issues in a poignant and striking way," said Christy Lawton, director of the Office of Children's Services.
For Alaska Native children, the numbers are especially out of sync, with three out of 100 in state foster care, according to the report, "Trends in Age, Gender and Ethnicity among Children in Foster Care in Alaska," released this week. In Anchorage, six out of every 100 Native children are in foster care, the report's lead researcher said.
A large number of children in foster care come from chaotic, neglectful homes as a result of parents' drinking or drug use. Some were preyed on sexually or were physically harmed by beatings or other violence. The figures include those placed in group homes and treatment centers as well as those in family foster homes. But children in tribal foster homes separate from the state-run system are not included. The statistics include children and young adults up to age 21, though most leave foster care before then.
State and federal laws passed in the 1990s aimed to reduce the time children languished in foster care and reduce their numbers.
Nationally, the number of children in foster care declined by almost a quarter between 2002 and 2012 and the number of African-American children dropped by nearly half, the report said.
"In contrast, no such dramatic changes happened in Alaska in recent years," the study led by Diwakar Vadapalli, an assistant professor of public policy, found. Researchers analyzed data published by OCS on its website, he said.
The Alaska numbers remain high because deep, societal troubles that infect families have yet to be truly addressed, Lawton said.
"We haven't made much progress in terms of Alaska's rate of substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide," she said. In small villages, the lack of jobs may cause depression or other problems, she said.
"Those are all the factors that largely lead to why kids end up being reported to us and families get to the point where there has to be intervention before a child death occurs," Lawton said.
Here are other key findings from the ISER study:
* Children in Western Alaska were twice as likely to be in foster care as children from elsewhere in the state, and almost all were Alaska Native.
* While 20 percent of Alaska children are Native, 60 percent of those in foster care between 2006 and 2013 were Native. Alaska Native children were seven times more likely to be in foster care than white children.
* More than one-third of the children in Alaska foster care were 4 years of age or younger, about the same as the portion nationally. But teens in Alaska are much less likely to be in foster care than those across the country.
* Girls are slightly more likely to be in Alaska foster care than boys.
Studies have shown that kids who grow up in foster care face increased risk of problems including homelessness, dropping out of school, and trouble with the law – but researchers note that their home lives before care were troubled too.
OCS is changing its practices to get help to troubled families more quickly, Lawton said. Too many reports had been determined to fall below the risk threshold and were not being investigated. Now, the agency is putting new emphasis on reports with certain characteristics, such as an infant in the home and parents who are drinking, she said.
The number of Alaska children in foster care is continuing to grow, Lawton said.
As of October, the count was nearly 2,300. That's the largest number she's seen in her 17 years with the agency.
"Until we can start intervening earlier, which is a resource issue and a community-wide issue, we still will never be catching these families at the state level until they are over the waterfall and they are downstream and we are pulling them out of the water," Lawton added, "which is pretty much where we are at right now."