Alaska editorial: Bill aims to give foster children a better chance

Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009

Not all Alaska's foster children will need state help when they turn 19 and can strike out on their own. Many, however, do. And strike out is exactly what some of them do without that help.

That's why House Bill 126, sponsored by Rep. Les Gara, aims to give those just coming out of foster care a better chance at success.

Gara's bill would:

• Extend housing assistance to nine months from the current three months after a foster child leaves his or her foster family or other state care.

• Add more tuition and job training vouchers for continued education.

• Add room and board assistance so children coming out of foster care or other state care like residential treatment can go to school. This help would fill the gap left by any state, federal or private aid the student receives.

• Provide money to extend foster care to willing families and foster kids up to the age of 21. Federal money will provide 25 percent of such extended care costs, and keep fostered Alaskans in good family situations longer.

Gara's bill also makes two other improvements that will help foster children. The Office of Children's Services would have to make monthly, face-to-face visits with the children it supervises. And foster children who are moved from one home to another would be kept in their original school at least until the end of that school year. Changing schools is one more disruption for foster children, making an already tough young life tougher. Sticking with classmates and teachers gives them at least some anchor.

These are simple fixes that don't cost much - between $2 million and $3 million in fiscal year 2010.

Foster care can be a rugged road, and age 19 is no magic number for the kids on that road. About 40 percent of young Alaskans coming out of foster care are homeless at some point, according to Rep. Gara. This bill aims to cut that number down.

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