Bill offers hope to kids: Foster children need help to prepare for adulthood

Voices of the State

Posted: Wednesday, March 29, 2006

With so much focus this year dedicated to the state’s oil and gas resources, it is important that other issues concerning Alaska’s future not be overlooked. According to the Department of Health and Social Services, there are nearly 2,000 children in Alaska’s foster care system. Most of these children were placed in foster care because they were neglected or abused in their home, and it is unsafe for them to return.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation for most foster children is that they will be in the custody of the state for a significant period of time, an average of 23 months, according to DHSS. Some of these children will be placed back in their primary home and some will be adopted, but many remain in foster care until they turn 18, when they are released from the state’s custody.

Foster parents around the state should be applauded for the job they do, providing positive role models for children in need. They take up the challenge of caring for children daily when no one else will. Acting as the primary caregivers for these children, foster parents sacrifice their time and efforts for children in need and expect little in return.

These foster parents, however, are usually not prepared or expected to shoulder the burden of caring for the children after they exit the foster care system. In many cases, foster children are ill prepared for life as adults, whether they choose to pursue education beyond high school or seek the necessary training to join the work force. These children face significant barriers during the transition to adulthood and find a lack of support services available to them during their time of need.

It is troubling that Alaska has nearly 500 children in state custody that are high school age or older. Without a plan for their future, our fear is that many of these children will not be ready to lead responsible lives and be proud, productive members of our society and citizens of our state. It would be wise for Alaskans to help these foster kids make the most of their futures.

We believe the key to helping these young Alaskans realize their full potential lies in preparing them for life as adults, through education and job training. Senate Bill 287 would establish a plan to assist foster children when they are released from state custody.

SB 287 allows churches, community organizations, nonprofits and businesses to establish education savings accounts in the name of a foster child. Our vision is to create a system in Alaska in which any individual or entity can make a tax-deductible donation that will directly impact the life of a foster child and provide that child with opportunities they would not otherwise have.

Imagine a system in which a church or nonprofit organization could sponsor a foster child in Alaska who has faced difficult personal challenges.

As Alaskans, we are fortunate to have what many experts believe is the best education savings plan in the nation. Managed by T. Rowe Price, the UA College Savings Program allows individuals and organizations to open 529 savings accounts for a beneficiary of their choice.

The beauty of the UA savings accounts is that they can be used for nearly all education related expenses at any educational institution or program. If the key to successful youth is opportunity, this program is an excellent option. The money in these accounts can be used for college, university, technical, and vocational education and all related expenses. The flexibility of these accounts gives children in foster care options when they leave the state’s custody.

In many instances, foster children who have aged out of the state’s foster care system have essentially been left by the wayside. SB 287 allows these children, with the help of local community organizations and businesses, to explore opportunities in education and vocational training that they normally would not have.

Our goal, as Alaskans, is to pass this important legislation for the children who represent the future of our state.

Sen. Johnny Ellis is the Minority Leader of the Alaska Senate. Chip Wagoner is the executive director of the Alaska Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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