Last year, a bill bringing desperately needed reforms to Alaska’s foster care system quietly passed and was signed into law by Governor Bill Walker (I-Alaska). It was a bill close to its sponsor’s heart.
HB 27, also known as the Child Protection and Opportunity Act, was put forth by Rep. Les Gara (D-Anchorage) — himself a product of the New York foster care system. It’s just one of dozens of proposals the downtown representative has championed in the 16 years he has served in the House, and it brings much needed relief to a system overloaded with children.
The amount of children in foster care in Alaska has grown from 704 in 2014 to over 2,000 in 2016 — the second highest rate among states, per capita, of foster youth currently without a permanent home. That figure is expected to grow to 3,000. Caseworkers are struggling to keep up with the influx, schools are suffering from remediation because of children constantly being forced to move schools, and the longer foster children are stuck moving from home to home, the deeper the trauma.
HB26 passed unanimously and is aimed at improving the quality of life for foster youth in the process of being placed. The measure calls for speeding up the process of finding permanent homes to meet national standards, allows more flexibility for youth between 18-21 to receive continued care, requires educational assistance, works to increase the number of foster care parents, and employs various efforts to improve communication between Alaska Native groups and the Office of Children’s Services.
And on Monday, Gara rightly received national recognition for his efforts, which are by no means limited to this specific legislative accomplishment.
Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based foundation that works to “provide and improve — and ultimately prevent the need for — foster care” in the U.S. — announced Gara as one of ten recipients of their annual Casey Excellence for Children Awards. Per the announcement,
Alaska Representative Les Gara has built on his own experience in foster care to advocate successfully for young people in state care. He entered foster care at age 6 in New York when his father died, and he remained in care until he turned 18. Gara graduated magna cum laude from Boston University and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. His law career included serving as Alaska assistant attorney general on the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation. Serving in the Alaska House since 2003, Gara has been instrumental in achieving increased funding for child welfare and foster care services. In 2016, he wrote and co-sponsored legislation that passed unanimously to prioritize kinship placements before foster care, emphasize permanency and ensure school stability for youth in care. He started Laptops for Foster Youth and Alaska’s mentorship program for foster youth, which is now a state-supported program. He has also improved funding for shelters, meets frequently with youth in care and has employed foster care alumni in his office.
Included in the announcement was a quick video highlighting some of Gara’s work.
To find out what you can do to pitch in or get involved, whether its volunteer time, donating, or getting rid of that old laptop you’ve had sitting around, visit Facing Foster Care Alaska.
And congratulations to Rep. Gara. Thank you for your work and dedication.