Friday, December 06, 2013

The 49th state struggles to place rural Alaska Native children with Native foster families

There are 400,540 foster children in the U.S., according to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Finding families to adopt these children, or merely giving them a safe home where they feel accepted, can be difficult, especially in rural areas like Alaska, where 14.8 percent of the population is Native American. Of the 2,100 foster Alaskan youth placed in foster homes, 1,276 are Alaska Natives, and only 413, or 32 percent, have been placed with Native families, Carey Restino reports for The Arctic Sounder.  

Despite the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, "which requires states to do everything in their power to keep Native American children with their families, or at the very least with Native American families that the child’s tribe designates," the problem still exists in Alaska, and other states, Lauren Kawana reports for Oakland North. In 2012 in California, 439 Native American children entered foster care, a rate of 1.2 percent. Native American children "account for nearly 1 of every 10 foster children in Nebraska," up from 1 out of every 14 last year, Martha Stoddard reports for the Omaha World-Herald. Similar problems have occurred in every state with high Native American populations, such as Utah, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

What makes Alaska different are its many small, remote settlements, which makes it hard to attract Natives to become involved in being foster parents, Restino writes. Training and "support is often a plane ride away for rural community foster parents, and the system can be daunting to navigate without an advocate nearby to talk to." Plus, small-town life isn't ideal for fostering. "While in a larger community, foster parents — relative or not — may have some anonymity, in a small town, they are likely to bump into the children’s parents in the grocery store or elsewhere around town."

Christy Lawton, director of the state Office of Children’s Services, told Restino of moving a child from a remote town to a larger community: “It’s like going from Alaska to New York City. That’s what it compares to in terms of the shock.” Aileen McInnis, director of the Alaska Center for Resource Families, a nonprofit organization that the state pays to train and support foster families, told Restino: “When kids are taken out of their community, they lose that really valuable cultural connection. It’s very important to keep kids connected with their culture.” 

The state has 1,300 licensed foster homes. But changes could be coming soon. Democratic Rep. Les Gara, who was a foster child, has begun a campaign to educate and promote fostering throughout the state, Restino writes. "Gara has worked with colleagues to spearhead reforms to reduce Alaska’s foster parent shortage, provide mentors for youth coming out of care, and to increase the accessibility of college and job training to help foster youth succeed. As well, a statewide TV advertisement campaign by the Department of Health and Human Services titled 'One Child' recently won an award for its effort to recruit new foster parents." (Read more)

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