JUNEAU - When Les Gara's dad became a fatal victim of a New York City break-in decades ago, Gara's legal guardian became the state. He was 6 years old and stayed in foster care until he was 18.
Now an attorney and state lawmaker, Rep. Gara, 47, considers himself lucky because he had a stable family on his second placement that looked after him until he went to college. The Anchorage Democrat wants more foster youths to have an experience like his, and said he is proud of pending reforms and modest budget increases for foster care in Alaska that he helped the Legislature pass this year.
The proposed budget has $715,000 in additional money for initiatives aimed at addressing problems in transitioning foster care youths who come of age and are expected to live independently. It breaks down into eight different areas, including money for school transportation to avoid changing schools midyear, college scholarships or career training, housing and foster family recruitment.
"Everything sort of ties in," said Amanda Metivier, a former Alaska foster child and advocate with the Anchorage group Facing Foster Care in Alaska. "Everything builds off all the budget items."
Metivier also think she was fortunate. Her Alaska foster family let her overstay her time with them "as long as I was in school." She was 17 when she went in and 22 when she ventured out on her own.
Foster care is intended to be a temporary stop until a permanent home is found for children who have been orphaned or whose parents are deemed unfit. However, many children - particularly older ones - remain in foster care until their age makes them ineligible.
Unlike Gara and Metivier, many other foster children don't get that stability, repeatedly moving among temporary shelters and foster families and switching schools.
"Not a great childhood," Gara said.
"Yanking support at age 18, saying, 'Hey, good luck,' to a child who has no responsible parent is not a good policy," he said.
That instability often shows in adulthood. Two costly areas where Gara and Metivier expect to see improvement are in high rates of homelessness and criminal behavior among former foster kids.
In a 2005 study, University of Alaska Anchorage researchers found both among foster care alumni under 30 who had spent at least a year of their adolescence in state custody. About 38 percent reported being homeless after leaving care, many repeatedly. One-tenth of the 140-person target group was in jail during the study. Of the 66 whom researchers did reach for interviews, about 29 percent said they'd been jailed since leaving care, many repeatedly.
Former foster care adults "are prone to involvement with the criminal justice system," the researchers wrote.
In that vein, Gara and Metivier said the measures may save the state in the long run.
The Legislature also passed a bill Gara sponsored letting some youths stay in foster care until their 21st birthday and lets others who've left come back. Foster care coverage ends by default at age 18. Gara's bill doesn't change that, but it extends an existing option for extra coverage to one's 21st birthday, up from the 20th.
The Department of Health and Social Services estimates it would lead to the year-round equivalent of 35 more youths in state foster care and cost Alaska another $448,000 a year to maintain.
Republican Gov. Sean Parnell has yet to sign Gara's bill or the state operating budget, and has primed lawmakers for line item vetoes. He has aimed his rhetoric primarily at the capital budget, not the operating budget where the foster care money is pending. Nonetheless, department spokeswoman Susan Morgan and governor's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow both said it is too soon to comment on the programs during the governor's review.
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