We're just a vote away from helping Alaska's foster children

As a mother and grandmother, and through my work with foster youth and the Alaska Children's Trust, I have realized that few things are of higher priority to me than the safety and well-being of our youth and families.

Imagine a foster child finally getting a permanent home, but having to leave her friends and teachers behind to make that happen. Upturning one part of a child's life to create stability in another part happens too often with foster children. We owe it to Alaska children in foster care to make their transition back to their home or to new homes, whether temporary or permanent, as seamless and supported as possible. Two bills awaiting Senate hearings can make these transitions easier. Each bill has a zero fiscal note attached meaning so budgetary impact to the state.

House Bill 27 makes it a priority for children to stay in the same school through the end of term when moving from one placement setting to another if in the same municipality and in the best interests of the child. This educational continuity can provide stability for children when they move to new foster or adoptive homes. Switching schools mid-term can set students back several months.

Introduced by Rep. Les Gara, HB 27 also adds language that emphasizes the state's responsibility for finding permanent placements for Alaska's foster children and prioritizes placing them with relatives when possible. Research shows that children are generally more successful when placed with family or close friends. According to Representative Gara, a former foster child himself, the goal is to spare the child from being bounced through multiple placements. The Department of Health and Social Services Office of Children's Services already encourages and promotes the recruitment of foster, adoptive and guardianship homes. This bill formalizes this practice and gives courts the power to assess and demand these reasonable efforts.

Currently, there are over 700 children in foster care who are awaiting permanency -- the highest, per capita, of any state. Many of these children are placed with relatives or families who intend to adopt or become legal guardians; however there are other children who are waiting for a permanent home. Many of these children are older youth who need a family to help them transition through the difficult challenges of adulthood. In short, HB 27 puts more muscle into our efforts to find permanent homes for every Alaska child. As a complement to this bill, House Bill 200 reduces the barriers to finding these permanent homes.

Under current law, someone seeking to adopt an Alaska Native child or Indian child in the custody of DHSS must file a formal petition for adoption in order to have the adoptive placement preferences under the Indian Child Welfare Act be applied and recognized. The Alaska Supreme Court has held that a "proxy" can be used in lieu of this formal petition.

HB 200 defines and clarifies the proxy process for use by all Alaskans interested in the immediate permanent placement of a relative child. It will streamline decision making, help avoid adoption disputes, and save the state time and money associated with multiple hearings by employing a "one judge, one family" model that allows one judge to oversee a child's case from beginning to end.

The bill, introduced by Gov. Walker, will benefit all Alaskans seeking the adoption of relatives, but it will specifically increase the number of Alaska Native children who can be placed immediately and permanently, if necessary, with their family, community and culture.

In my work with the Office of Children's Services, I know firsthand the challenges our foster youth face and the need and longing they have for stability, predictability and a sense of belonging. With over 2,800 Alaska children in foster care -- over 55 percent of them Alaska Native children -- we cannot afford to wait. These children need to see our commitment to caring for and about their futures as they endure the day to day impacts of circumstance they did not choose and cannot control. Please join me in encouraging the Senate to move these bills to the floor for a vote.

Donna Walker is an attorney, former OCS Caseworker and honorary chair of the Alaska Children's Trust. She has been Alaska's first lady since 2014, when her husband Bill Walker was elected as an independent.

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