By Carey Restino
Foster parenting has changed a lot in the state of Alaska in the past 20 years, but what hadn’t changed is the need for more foster parents, particularly in the many remote communities of the state.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, was himself a foster child, and now, as an elected representative, has found himself in the unique position of being able to advocate for the state’s foster children, who often times have to leave their home towns because there are no foster parents available there. Gara has worked with colleagues to spearhead reforms to reduce the shortage of foster parents, provide mentors for youth coming out of care, and to increase the accessibility of college and job training to help foster youth succeed.
“Foster parents are in high demand in Alaska, and the department did a great job capturing the need and the benefits of foster care in a fun, compelling ad,” said Gara.
Across the state, there are around 2,100 foster youth placed in various homes. A disproportionate number of those — 1,276 — are Native Alaskans. But while state law, not to mention numerous studies, support those children bring placed in Native homes, or at least within their community or region, many are sent to larger communities like Fairbanks and Anchorage. Only 413 children were in Native foster homes as of October, according to the state, and of the 1,276 licensed foster homes, only 322 were Native homes.
Aileen McInnis, director of the Alaska Center for Resource Families, a nonprofit organization that receives state funding to train and support foster families across the state, said part of the reason Native families, as well as non-Native families in rural communities, may be hesitant to sign up to help is because of the nature of small town living.
Support is often a plane ride away for rural community foster parents, and the system can be daunting to navigate without an advocate nearby to talk to.
“It’s a very confusing system in a lot of ways,” McInnis said. “Sometimes, especially in rural areas, there is a lot of distrust, especially among the Native communities, especially because of past actions taken. So people are hesitant to step forward.”
While in a larger community, foster parents — relative or not — may have some anonymity, in a small town, they are likely to bump into the children’s parents in the grocery store or elsewhere around town.
“The reality of living in a village gets really tough,” McInnis said.
In addition, potential foster parents may think that they have to have a pristine criminal record, perfect homes with extra bedrooms and other facilities that are less prevalent in smaller communities. The state is much more flexible on many of those factors than it used to be, said Christy Lawton, director of the state Office of Children’s Services.
“There’s the perception that if you have a honey bucket or you don’t have a big enough house, you can’t be a foster parent,” Lawton said. “There’s been some progress made on that but it still stops people from asking. People perpetuate that belief that there’s so many complex regulations that they assume they won’t qualify.”
Lawton said while it is true that the state requires all potential foster homes may not have anyone with a record of sexual offenses living in them, a past record or other type of criminal behavior from decades ago won’t necessarily cause the state to turn down an applicant.
If a potential foster parent can show that they don’t lead the lifestyle they did when convicted, it is highly likely they will be accepted as a foster parent.
Big payoffs for children, foster parents
For a child coming from a rural community, the trauma of being taken away from their parents and then moving to a large community or city is hard to gauge, but significant, those working with foster children said.
“It’s like going from Alaska to New York City,” said Lawton. “That’s what it compares to in terms of the shock.”
But McInnis said for those children able to stay in their region, the payoffs are tremendous. They are able to maintain a connection to their community, their relatives and their culture, all of which are huge benefits to a child dealing with various kinds of trauma.
“When kids are taken out of their community, they lose that really valuable cultural connection,” she said. “It’s very important to keep kids connected with their culture.”
Maintaining culture connections, especially for Native youth, is one of the bigger challenges of the state’s foster system, she said, especially since access to the hometown communities is often challenging.
McInnis said she’s seen some inspiring examples of foster families who were able to connect youth with their culture through subsistence practices.
“There is incredible strength in rural communities,” said McInnis.
McInnis said she’s also seen example after example of families who are forever changed by being foster parents.
“These kids bring such a richness to a family’s home,” said McInnis, recalling former foster parents who softened into their role as foster parents time and again.
“They tell me this has changed their life,” she said. “Sometimes the things that challenge you the most also give you the most reward. It’s a tough job, but these kids really need families.”
Temporary nature of fostering tough
Perhaps the greatest challenge to being a foster parent is that after a certain amount of time — typically two years but sometimes much less — youth may be moved to another home, to family, or back with their parents. For a foster parent, that can often times be heartbreaking, especially for those who have bonded with the children.
McInnis said that while the situation may appear temporary to the foster families, it isn’t to the children, who need to find a place to be safe, loved and form attachments in.
“Kids need to be attached to someone,” she said. “They can’t float in free air for two years. That’s the role of foster care, to provide a good, solid connection for kids until they can find their permanent home.”
Remembering the role of the service you are providing as a foster parent helps, she said, although many find this part of the job the greatest challenge.
“You have to get your mind straight on what you are really doing as a foster family and know how important it is,” she said.
When foster parents call her upset because a child was returned back home, she said she understands, but also acknowledges that if the foster parents are saddened by the child’s departure, that means they were well cared for.
“That probably means that the kid made good attachments,” she said. “That’s good. Unattached kids have real difficulty with relationships.”
Rural connections improving
McInnis said in her 20 years working with foster care in the state, she’s seen tremendous improvements, especially in rural communities. Whereas foster parents were once instructed to disconnect the child completely from its family, the opposite is now true most of the time.
Foster families are more encouraged to work with birth families than ever before, and many times, work to help kids return home.
“That’s a real positive trend,” she said.
There is also much more effort put into finding relatives who might be potential foster parents, she said. While you might think that would be easy, it often takes a great deal of research to find aunts and uncles who might be able to provide a safe, loving home for the child.
The state offers support to families who choose to be foster parents, whether they are relatives or not. The children’s medical expenses and any special needs services are provided by the state, as is a stipend. If younger children need childcare while a foster parent is working, the state helps with that expense, too. In addition, the state helps foster families find the care they need for the children they are fostering.
Many of the children in foster care have been through some degree of trauma — perhaps their parents were struggling with drug and alcohol abuse issues or behavioral trauma such as domestic violence.
“That can be really traumatic for the kids,” McInnis said, adding that support is available to help foster parents understand how youth might act as a result.
Lawton said while many youth in foster care have experienced trauma, there are countless success stories that indicate what a positive impact foster parents can have on the lives of these young people.
She said while in Alaska’s rural communities, foster parenting may be more challenging, it is also critically needed to break the cycles of trauma for the generations to come. She said while not everyone can be a foster parent, the entire community can help support those who do choose to take a child into their homes.
McInnis agreed, saying regardless of how people find themselves considering foster parenting ñ whether it is to care for the children of a relative or to care for children in your community that are not related to you, it is a critically needed and rewarding choice.
“Foster care is kind of an in between place, but it’s not in between for the kids,” McInnis said. “They don’t stop growing up. So the challenge is how do we give kids as normal a life as possible.”
Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent can visit the center’s website at www.acrs.org or call 1-800-478-7307.
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