Fall is not a season friendly to kids in dysfunctional families, experts at the state Department of Health and Social Services say.
"The state always welcomes foster parents, but the need is never more critical than it is right now," said Ritchie Sonner, coordinator of the foster parent program.
Cold weather drives people indoors, where proximity can magnify family dysfunction. Increasingly dark days and lengthening nights exacerbate family substance abuse or mental health problems. Some parents view the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend in October as "free money" for purchasing alcohol and other drugs not as a way to pay the rent, buy school clothes or provide for the future, experts said.
As such children return to school in September, however, they enter an environment in which adults outside the home can see their problems. In the fall, reports of child abuse and neglect increase dramatically as teachers and school administrators notice kids attending school bruised, exhausted, ill-clothed or unfed.
"The number of children in our care traditionally peaks in autumn," said Theresa Tanoury, director of the Division of Family and Youth Services. The number of children taken into protective custody statewide last year, from July through October, shows a typical pattern.
In July 2000, 49 children were taken into protective custody. The number rose to 64 in August, 83 in September and 85 in October.
The fall-to-summer ratio of nearly 2-to-1 is true in Southeast as well, said Sonner. Five new children were taken into state custody in July and August 2000, compared with nine in October and November 2000.
As of this fall, "We need homes in all the communities of Southeast," Sonner said. "In Juneau alone we need 10 new foster homes especially with Native families and in homes that will accept older children, ages 9 or up."
Foster parents must be licensed by the state through a process that assures the prospective foster parent and child-protection workers that the home is suitable for kids. To qualify, an individual must have a home that provides enough room for a child to sleep and to store his or her belongings.
Foster parents may be married or single, do not need to own their own home, and can be employed outside the home. Training and support are provided to new foster parents, and a stipend compensates for the costs of raising foster children.
The licensing process also includes fingerprinting and criminal background checks for potential foster parents, said foster parent Jana Smith. The Division of Family and Youth Services looks into upbringing, parenting background and parenting preferences for specific age groups, and checks references, Smith said. Once a person is a licensed foster parent, the survey process continues so that if local police cite or arrest the parent, his or her state file is flagged.
An orientation for foster parents is scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. Friday at the Foster Parent Training Center, 3032 Vintage Boulevard.
Information about how to become a foster parent is available from Vinnie Fernandez of the Fairbanks Foster Parent Training Center at 800 478-7307. Information also is available from the local center at 790-4246, or on the Internet at http://www.hss.state.ak.us/dfys/fostercare.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.