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State called to do a better job with its kids in foster care

It's time for reform in Alaska's foster care system. Just doing the same as last year isn't working. The State of Alaska is custodian to 2,000 foster youth. We're supposed to create hope and opportunity. Instead 40 percent of Alaska's foster youth end up homeless at some point in adulthood.

Statistics paint a picture of blocked opportunity. Foster youth are more likely than their peers to end up in jail at a taxpayer cost of $40,000 a year. The smarter option is University of Alaska job training and college courses at $15,000 a year. Our children should benefit from federally mandated, monthly face-to-face meetings with social work staff who are trained in helping youth succeed. A recent federal review of Alaska foster care says many of our youth get this support once every eight months, not monthly. That's thanks in part to chronic staff turnover, poor pay and crushing workloads at the Office of Children's Services.

It's time for new ideas that will work. That's why we, and Sen. Bettye Davis (D-Anchorage), are pushing House Bill 126 and Senate Bill 105. The bills are products of last fall's Foster Care Summit and information from experts who've advised us about reforms being pushed in other states.

So, what can we do?

Stop bouncing foster youth between schools: In Alaska we bounce foster youth between schools, as they bounce between homes, too often. Moving children between schools during the school year is a proven indicator that a child will underachieve. With each disruptive mid-semester change a child can fall behind in school by another four to six months.

Federal law provides partial funding to keep youth in the same school. The state needs to act so all children can, where it makes sense, stay in their school.

College and job training: Alaska provides minimal support for those who'd seek success through a degree or job training at the University of Alaska. The university and state provide a small number of tuition-only scholarships to foster youth. Beyond that, foster youth face a problem all Alaskans face -- the second-stingiest financial aid system in the nation.

Foster youth have an additional problem. Most children can call their parents when they need a place to stay or when they need support. Foster youth don't have that lifeline. We should make sure all foster youth know that if they want to go to college or get job training, we will help them with tuition, fees and a place to live. Alaska's second-worst in the nation college aid plan needs to be fixed for all youth.

Homelessness: Today the state provides minimal funding for youth coming out of care. They get a month's rent, and then a half month's rent for two months. If you're 18 and have no parent or caring adult to call for support, you need a hand getting on your feet. That's just a fact of life.

We should let foster youth know we'll help with basic housing their first year coming out of care if they need it. And we should offer a steadier hand, with mentoring, to steer them toward the success they want. Parents do this for most children. Foster youth don't have this "luxury."

And, though we have a chronic shortage of foster parents, we should allow foster youth, if they have a good foster home, to stay until age 21 if they feel they need the support. Ending foster care and health coverage at age 19 and then putting youth out on the street with no parental support just isn't working.

The governor says "we have to live within our means." We agree. But we disagree if that means the solution for every aspect of state policy is to do what we did last year. Not when real solutions are cost-effective and cheaper than less important projects that always find their way into Alaska's $7 billion budget.

Things need to change. Keeping them the same costs too much, both financially and to our moral standing.

Rep. Les Gara is an Anchorage Democrat, and grew up in foster care. He can be reached at Amanda Metivier lived in foster care, is coordinator of Facing Foster Care Alaska and recently earned her Social Work degree from UAA.