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My Turn: At-risk Alaska kids need foster parents

Posted: December 2, 2012 - 9:18am

At the end of a political season, people still focus too much on their differences — which get exaggerated during the hype of campaign season. Well, let’s step back together for a moment — in the spirit of the Holiday season, in the spirit we all share as Alaskans, and in the spirit of extending a hand to children who, for no fault of their own, need our help.

Let me put this bluntly. In Alaska we have a vast shortage of foster parents. And, if you don’t have the time to be a foster parent, we could use more people to be mentors to older foster youth, who often leave foster care with no responsible adult to talk to, eat dinner with, see a movie with, and get advice from. The latter is a foster care version of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. We need your help in both.

Why be a foster parent? First, there is a shortage of good foster homes, which means that youth bounce around like damaged goods in the back of a pick-up truck, from one temporary family to another – sometimes to 20 homes or more. That is damaging. Crippling for some youth. It sends the message that no one cares, and causes youth to distrust the adults who are supposed to be there to help them. Could you imagine if that were replaced with a system where youth entered the homes of a loving, responsible, caring foster family whenever they needed? As opposed to a family that volunteers to take in too many children for a short period of time — a circumstance created by the shortage in foster families in Alaska?

In Alaska we have more than 1,500 foster youth. There is a constant debate in the Legislature and with the Governor about whether we provide the support and opportunity needed for these youth to succeed, though we’ve made great strides in recent years. But that aside, a good foster family can make the biggest difference of all in a foster youth’s life. You can instill work ethic. You can share the love and responsibility most foster youth don’t get unconditionally from their own parents. You can help a child or youth who never had a fighting chance with their own parents, whether it was because of drug abuse, criminal activity, violence, or the kind of parenting that ensures failure for their child.

A good foster home is the best way to make sure foster youth have a chance to succeed in this world — and share the American dream. And the Alaska dream. Dreams of success. As a legislator I have worked hard to expand the availability of job training and college aid, and housing assistance for youth coming out of care. But without a family to help prepare a youth to take advantage of these opportunities, that aid can’t achieve its full potential.

Ok, so what if you don’t have the time to be a foster parent? Well, recognizing money doesn’t grow on trees, we have started a foster youth mentorship program, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters has won the contract. It’s cheap. You volunteer your time. And every week or two you stay in contact with an older youth coming out of care so they know they have someone to turn to when they are on their own. You can help shape a youth, during hikes, breakfasts or dinners, movie nights, fishing, or whatever way it takes for the two of you to bond and gain mutual trust. And by doing that you can steer your youth towards the job and college aid and other success transition programs we have to help older youth.

So — I don’t care if you voted for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, or the Governor’s version of oil tax reform. I care that we put our differences aside, and extend a hand. If you’d like to be a foster parent, please call 800-478-7307. If you’d like to be a mentor, please call Amy at (907)433-4600. Or you can call me at 269-0106. And, thank you!

• Rep. Gara is an Anchorage Democratic Legislator, and is a former foster youth. You can contact him at rep.les.gara@legis.state.ak.us.

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