Shortage of families leaves few options, adds pressure for those in Alaska’s foster care system

Anchorage, Alaska.
Anchorage, Alaska.(KTUU)
Updated: Jun. 1, 2021 at 9:55 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A marked shortage of licensed families whose homes are open to children, teens and even legal adults who are part of the foster care system is becoming more evident, according to advocates, who maintain they are dealing with trying to house more foster kids as fewer families are readily available.

“Right now, we’re at the point where we’ve lost the bottom building block which is, we have no foster families for children,” said former Rep. Les Gara, who served in the Alaska Legislature for more than 15 years and has also been working for a long time to expand on the rights and available assistance for foster children. “I mean, of all the other things these children are facing, could you imagine being a foster youth?

“That’s where we are right now,” he added. “In crisis.”

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said in an email Tuesday that the Office of Children’s Services “is experiencing a lower number of licensed foster homes than what it typically has,” noting that this past April alone, 76 licensed foster homes either closed their licenses or allowed their licenses to expire.

The department also said that as of Tuesday, OCS has 922 licensed foster homes, and another 469 homes are licensed through child placement agencies.

Additionally, “there are no connections directly linking the lack of foster homes to the COVID-19 pandemic,” department spokesperson Clinton Bennett wrote in an email.

Gara, however, said that by some estimates, Alaska is down around 40% of its usual foster care capacity, when you count homes that say “no” when they get a call with a request to care for a child, whether that’s due to concerns over COVID-19 or something else.

He and Amanda Metivier, co-founder of Anchorage-based Facing Foster Care, pointed out that Alaska already didn’t have enough foster homes even before this year.

“Challenges that young people face are already a challenge with lack of foster homes, and opportunity to find the right match or fit with a family,” Metivier said. “You can hear the desperation in the voice of the case worker on the other end of the phone who just really needs a safe place for a child to go.”

One of the challenges, according to DHSS, is that there aren’t many families applying to be a general foster care home. The majority of applications are for families to foster a specific child, Bennett said via email, such as a child being placed with a relative.

“OCS struggles with identifying homes for teens, medically fragile, and children with behavioral issues,” Bennett wrote.

Metivier, who is a social worker by trade, said she was in the foster care system herself for a time during her childhood. She has since dedicated her life to improving conditions for other foster kids, as Gara has.

“People thought I worked on foster care issues because I grew up in foster care,” Gara said, adding that his father died when he was a child. “Things were not great. But I brought up foster care as an issue because it was very unaddressed. And I understood the system. And I felt like I could get bipartisan support. Who’s going to stand in the way of a child who’s done nothing wrong, who has no parent?”

Still, hope remains: while DHSS says some 3,000 children are in out-of-home placement, and the state in dire need of more foster homes, there’s room to grow and for many Alaskans to step up and aid a struggling foster child.

“When Alaskans hear there’s a problem,” Gara said, “Alaskans step up. It’s not always the right time to be a foster parent. It’s not an easy thing. But for many people, it’s the right time.”

There are many resources available for anyone who is interested in simply learning more about foster care opportunities, Metivier said, from information packets to full-on training sessions.

“You don’t have to have a two-parent household,” she said, pointing out an example of what sometimes stops people from applying. “You can have a family that has children, you can be retired. The options are unlimited, and for some children, different settings are the right thing.”

Those interested can learn more about becoming a foster parent by heading to the OCS website.

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