Issues such as family breakdown and suicide have plagued Alaska for years, but now, even in the midst of a fiscal crisis that has led to massive budget deficits, state leaders are looking for new ways to fight those problems, local Native leaders and elders were told Thursday.
More than 3,000 Alaskan children, more than half Alaska Native, are in state foster care, said Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage.
As chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee, Gara told the Native Issues Forum that by not doing enough to get the foster children for which it has responsibility into long-term families, the state is treating them like “ping pong balls,” but children aren’t as resilient at ping pong balls.
“Every time you bounce a child to another family, you cause them damage,” he said.
That damage will have long lasting and costly impacts, he said.
Gara, himself a product of foster care who went on to attend Harvard and become a lawyer, said that in his years in the Legislature he’s worked to improve Alaska’s foster care system with a series of small measures. Now he’s working on a bill, to be introduced as soon as next week, to make big changes.
But those changes, he said, will come with costs, and he said that he’ll be asking his legislative colleagues to invest in getting children out of foster care.
“I’m asking you to spend money to save money over the long term,” he said he’ll be telling them.
A Democrat, Gara is in the unusual position of being in a Democratic-led coalition that also includes Independents and some Republicans.
Joining Gara in the Majority coalition, and at the Native Issues Forum Thursday, was Rep. Garan Tarr, D-Anchorage, and co-chair of the House Resources Committee.
She said she didn’t see any realistic proposals in which the state’s budget crisis could by solved by additional cuts, despite suggestions to that effect from Republicans.
“If you notice, no one is coming up with proposals for where those cuts will be, because they don’t exist,” she said. “They’re just not there anymore.”
Any additional cuts will come directly out of services to those in need, she said.
Gara said that cuts already made have contributed to the loss of 9,000 jobs in the last year, and additional cuts threaten to send the state into a 10-year recession.
“We need to come up with a fiscal plan and raise revenue and it cannot just be on the backs of the poor and the elderly,” he said. “It also has to be on the backs of those born with privilege and also those running very profitable companies,” he said.
Retired leader Bill Martin, who still serves on the state’s Suicide Prevention Council, said budget cuts have limited that group to one in-person meeting a year, already limiting its effectiveness.
“The governor has said that we can’t have but one face-to-face meeting a year,” on suicide prevention.
“It’s just not important enough,” he said.
Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, sponsor of the forum, suggested the state contract with tribes such as his to provide services, and use expertise that’s been developed already.
“If you need experts, we have them,” he said.
Many in the Native community have suffered the impacts from being in foster care, and will be hurt the most if state budget cuts reduce state services even further.
He praised Gara and Tarr for visiting to let the local community know what the Legislature was doing.
“Both of you spoke to our hearts, I believe, to matters that affect us all,” he said.
Pat Forgey is a freelance reporter based in Juneau.