Congratulations, Alaska: You’re the Foster Care Capital of America

At the end of 2016, the federal government finally released state-by-state foster care numbers for 2015.

Congratulations, Alaska: You’re number one!

The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform uses a “Rate of Removal Index” to determine each state’s propensity to place children in foster care. The index compares the number of children entering care over the course of a year and in care on the last day of the federal fiscal year to the number of impoverished children in each state.

In 2015, Alaska had proportionately more children in foster care than any other state. Have a look.

We believe the fairest comparison factors in rates of child poverty. But when you instead compare the number of children in foster care to the total child population, Alaska still has proportionately more children in foster care than any other state.

As for the number of children taken from their homes over the course of the year, Alaska’s rate of removal is only the third highest in the nation – again, that ranking holds whether comparing to the number of impoverished children in each state or the total child population.

Alaska’s rate of child removal in 2015 was more than triple the national average, and more than quadruple the rate in states that are, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe.

There is no evidence that Alaska children are three times safer from abuse and neglect than the national average. And check out this dismal trend: Between 2012 and 2015 the number of children taken from their homes over the course of a year in Alaska soared by 65 percent – with most of that increase between 2014 and 2015. Nationwide, there also was an increase during this time of less than 8 percent.

But then, why should anyone expect anything different when the head of the Alaska child welfare agency, the Office of Children’s Services (OCS), confuses child removal with child safety, and almost brags about breaking federal law requiring “reasonable efforts” to keep families together?

I’m sure the OCS will rush to blame the latest “drug plague.” That’s what child welfare agencies always do.  That’s what Arkansas tried to do. That state also had a spike in foster care numbers. So their child welfare agency hired consultants to tell them what they wanted to hear – that it was all because of drugs and budget cuts.

But the consultants didn’t go along. They found the problem was the culture of their child welfare agency and the courts. Imagine what they’d find in Alaska, where the rate of removal is well over double the rate in Arkansas.

You can be sure something else is happening in Alaska as well: Children in real danger, children who really should be removed from their homes, are being overlooked.  Because the more a system is overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect, the less time caseworkers have to investigate any case properly. So they make more errors in all directions.

Who is Targeted in Alaska

Although the most famous dysfunctional family in Alaska is white, they don’t seem to have been the subject of so much as an investigation (nor should they be). But imagine if that family were Native American. In Alaska, 18 percent of children are Native American or Native Alaskan. They represent 42 percent of foster children. But then, in a state where the “reasonable efforts” requirement is treated as a joke, it should come as no surprise that the Indian Child Welfare Act is ignored.

You can’t blame all this on money.

I’m a tax-and-spend liberal, and proud of it. And there is nothing at which I’d rather throw money than child welfare. I’d be glad to see all states spend more. But Alaska’s already spending a lot.  As of 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, Alaska was spending on child welfare at the third highest rate in the country, well over double the national average.

Even when you factor in the cost of living and vast travel distances in Alaska, it’s hard to make a case that the problem is lack of money.

The real problem is the great paradox of child welfare: The worse the option, the more it costs. Safe, proven alternatives to foster homes cost less than foster homes, which cost less than group homes, which cost less than institutions. So Alaska winds up spending on child welfare at one of the highest rates in the country — and getting dismal results.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

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