House Bill 151, The Children Deserve a Loving Home Act, didn’t get the broad public attention during the legislative process in Juneau that bills such as those dealing with the budget deficit or hot-button social issues often get.
But the bill, which Gov. Bill Walker signed into law Thursday, was a major one nonetheless. It makes significant changes to Alaska’s foster care system.
Change was clearly needed.
The number of children in foster care in Alaska has risen to where we now have, on average, about 3,000 children in foster care each month.
Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who was a foster child, sponsored the bill and has been a longtime driving force for upgrading the state’s foster care system. He wrote in support of the bill that “when roughly 40 percent of our foster youth end up homeless at some point in their lives after leaving care, and roughly 20 percent end up in jail, it’s a call for reform.”
Indeed it is.
One of the biggest problems has been the workload of Alaska’s caseworkers. The new law sets a statewide average caseload limit of 13 families per worker, a number in line with the recommendation of the Alaska Office of Children’s Services and national experts. New caseworkers will be limited to six families in their first three months and 12 in their first six months.
OCS workers handle a much higher number of cases. The average per caseworker in Fairbanks in fiscal 2018 was 21 families, down slightly from the 23 cases in fiscal 2017 but still well above the recommended level. In rural Interior, the number per worker in fiscal 2018 was 24 families, up sharply from the still-high 18 cases of the previous year.
Office of Children’s Services has a high turnover rate among its caseworkers, with the heavy caseload being the top reason people leave the agency.
Reducing the caseload would, it is hoped, allow for longer retention of caseworkers, which translates to a higher likelihood a foster child will find a permanent home. A foster child whose case goes through multiple front-line workers faces delays as each new worker gets acquainted with a particular child’s circumstances and family members. The high caseload also limits the amount of face-to-face time a caseworker can have with each child.
Here are some other aspects of the new law, according to the House Majority Coalition, Rep. Gara’s sponsor statement, and other documents:
. Enables children ages 14 and older to participate in their case plans and permanent home goals.
. Caseworkers will routinely conduct exhaustive searches for relatives so more foster youths can be placed with loving family members.
. Requires the sharing of contact information so that siblings in separate foster care homes can maintain contact with one another.
. Allows foster parents to make normal decisions about a foster child regarding sports, vacations and other activities without approval of a caseworker.
. Enacts timelines for decisions on foster care home license applications and for variances for family members who are not licensed foster parents.
The foster care reform has at last been obtained. Now it needs to be implemented.
The too-many children in Alaska’s foster care system are waiting.
—Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 9, 2018