House OKs foster care reform bill

Calling it a first step to larger reform, the Alaska House of Representatives voted 37-0 to approve House Bill 27 on Friday afternoon.

The bill, begun by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, calls for more frequent court oversight of the foster care process to ensure that everything possible is being done to find an orphaned or neglected child a permanent home.

“We should have a system that doesn’t have to make you a hero to survive,” Gara said, speaking about one young woman who lived in more than 50 foster homes before leaving the system run by the Office of Children’s Services.

She now attends the University of Alaska Anchorage.

In addition to increasing the child welfare court’s oversight of OCS, the bill requires the agency to make greater efforts to work with tribal and Alaska Native organizations, and perform more in-depth searches to determine whether a relative may be able to care for a child.

Children may stay in the foster care system through age 21 (instead of 18) in order to avoid homelessness, according to one provision in the bill.

The bill calls for children to stay in their current schools (if possible), and it states that one of the duties of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is to recruit foster parents and adoptive parents.

“This will help children succeed,” said Gara, a passionate supporter of the foster care system.

According to state figures, OCS demand has never been higher, with more than 2,800 children on the state’s rolls.

Due to the state’s $4 billion annual deficit, the bill contains no funding measures, just provisions dealing with how the foster care system operates.

That fact led Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, to say, “I agree with many of my collegues here: Something more needs to be done with OCS.”

The bill now heads to the Alaska Senate for consideration.

In other business, the House approved HB 373, a measure proposed by Gov. Bill Walker in late March and moved speedily through the House. The bill calls for selling state royalty oil to Tesoro refining. According to a state financial analysis of the bill, it will raise between $45.2 million and $56.5 million more in revenue for the state over the next five years. The exact figure will depend upon the price of North Slope crude oil.

The bill heads to the Senate, where it is expected to progress rapidly.

The House also:

Voted 38-0 in approval of House Bill 275, which names Oct. 18 “Indigenous Peoples Day” and May 31 “Katie John Day” in Alaska. The bill originally replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day but was amended in the House State Affairs Committee.

Voted 34-0, six absent, to approve House Bill 314, which allows the state’s regional economic development agencies, (including Southeast Conference) to continue operating through 2021 even if they do not receive state funding.

Both bills will go to the Senate for consideration.

The House will hold its next floor session at 11 a.m. Monday.

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