LISTEN: Alaska sees added strain to foster care system from COVID-19

Alaskans who’ve gone through the state’s foster care system. Clockwise from top left: Tristen Hunter, Ethan Harvey, Malerie McClusky, Katrina Edwards, Mateo Jaime and Alex Carter. (Ash Adams/NPR)

There is a shortage of foster homes in Alaska, and while that’s not a new problem, it’s one that advocates say has gotten worse due to COVID-19.

As first reported by the Anchorage Daily News, the state has about 17 percent fewer licensed foster homes now than in February of 2020. That’s straining the system.

The shortage of foster homes means when a child’s living situation is deemed unsafe, and the state puts them into the foster care system, they’re more often going to shelters or other residential programs — not to a foster parent.

RELATED: State foster care agencies take millions of dollars owed to children in their care

Amanda Metivier is associate director of the Alaska Child Welfare Academy, cofounder of Facing Foster Care in Alaska. She spent time in foster care herself, and is currently a foster parent.

Metivier said the pandemic has exacerbated existing problems with Alaska’s foster care system.

For more information about becoming a foster parent, visit the Alaska Center for Resource Families. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Amanda Metivier: We don’t have enough foster homes. We didn’t have enough foster homes prior to COVID.

But what happened when the pandemic hit was a lot of people have either closed their license, or have basically just gone on hold and stopped taking children into their home, number one, (because they) became fearful of infection. If you have medically fragile people, parents, children, or you’re home already, that’s a challenge. Or because of things like issues with childcare or being able to stay home to monitor virtual schooling.

And in addition to that, more challenges were created, especially for older youth in foster care. So all of a sudden, everything just shut down, but that included the Alaska Military Academy, Job Corps, boarding schools, places where teens in foster care were living. And so, for teenagers it’s already been hard to find homes. So, there was this influx of teenagers who all of a sudden also needed foster homes who had been in these other settings.

Casey Grove: For the individual youth, what’s the downside to there not being enough licensed homes? I mean where, where would they end up if not for a licensed foster home?

AM: So, I have primarily worked with teenagers and young adults in the system for a long time now, and I’ve seen more youth at Covenant House this year than I’ve ever seen. Youth who are in foster care may be placed at Covenant House or in other shelter residential settings as they’re awaiting a family home.

A lot of youth end up at homeless shelters, waiting. And that makes everything else harder, being able to complete school, think about the transition to adulthood as you’re getting ready to get a job, or need to get a driver’s license. Everything becomes harder when you don’t have a parent to help you navigate the world.

CG: So how do we get out of this? What should the state be doing, what should advocates be doing, what should potential foster families be doing to help the situation? 

AM: Ultimately, people who have been on the fence or who have closed their license, or who aren’t taking children right now, I would encourage them to jump back on and do it. Because there’s a huge need.

We have teens that I know that are actively trying to find their own families through social media. They’re trying to find foster homes themselves.

And so I would encourage anyone — you don’t have to be a two parent household, you don’t have to have had children. You can be retired. You can be a single person. I think there’s a lot of people that think there are, you know, barriers — these are sort of like myths. You don’t have to have a certain makeup in terms of how your family situation or household looks. It starts with the community stepping up and being willing to help. 

I think other things get easier for the state system in terms of falling into place when a caseworker has options to be able to call to identify homes, families for a child, so they aren’t constantly responding to crisis.

CG: When someone decides they want to be a foster family, what goes into that?

AM: There’s a lot of resources available to find out how this works, but I would suggest that people look at the Alaska Center for Resource Families. They do orientation and training, and just informational sessions for people who are interested. They hold these things regularly, a lot of it is virtual right now, but people can attend an orientation first to find out what it entails.

It’s a lot of paperwork, being able to pass a background check. Someone from the state will come and walk through your house to make sure that you have fire extinguishers and your fire alarms work, and everything is safe for a child, that a child would have their own space.

But for the most part, it’s people who are safe and care and are willing to sort of jump through all these hoops to do it. I think it’s worth it for children in need. And, having been in the system myself, and having been a foster parent for a long time, and I’ve adopted, too, from foster care — I can tell you that it’s challenging. And dealing with the state system is really challenging, but I think that there are huge rewards just in connecting with young people, and giving them an opportunity, and being able to model for them what life should look like.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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