House passes foster care improvement bill, says more needs to be done

Rep. Les Gara, D- Anchorage, speaks during a House floor session, Feb. 8, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Rep. Les Gara, D- Anchorage, speaks during a House floor session, Feb. 8, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The state House passed a foster care improvement bill Friday afternoon. Under the new legislation, the state would put a stronger focus on finding foster kids permanent homes and prioritize placing them with relatives when possible.

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One provision of the bill requires the court system to that Office of Children’s Services workers do their best to find long-term homes for children. The goal is to get the kids a permanent placement within one to two years of entering foster care. At the moment, more than 700 children in Alaska are looking for permanent homes–a much higher number than in other states.

“This bill aims to give people a better chance to succeed through our foster care system, without damage, without being bounced between 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50 homes,” said bill sponsor Anchorage Representative Les Gara during the discussion. “That in itself is neglect and abuse. The same neglect and abuse we’re trying to prevent, just in a different form and an institutional one.”

OCS will also continue to seek relatives of the children past the currently mandated first 30 days of out of home care. Research shows that children are more successful when placed with family or close friends. The bill also encourages more collaboration between OCS and Alaska Native groups.

Other parts of the bill provide that children will stay in the same school even if they move to a different placement, so long as the school is in the same municipality and it’s in the best interest of the child. Switching schools mid-term has shown to set students back multiple months.

Though the bill passed unanimously, some representatives had reservations. Anchorage Representative Lance Pruitt shared a story about trying to help a young boy in foster care and seeing all of the problems the child faced. He said the bill didn’t do enough.

“There really is a broken system. An OCS system that’s broken. And the management of it is not being done appropriately.”

Others mentioned that foster care is reactive, and the government should instead be focused on prevention and treating societal problems, like substance abuse.

Gara says the bill creates tools to address some of the current problems but more needs to be done.

The bill now goes to the Senate.