Anchorage resident Lula Canty has been a foster parent for 13 years. She’s taken in over 40 children, and even adopted three of them. Now she’s up against Alaska’s child care shortage.
“I would take in more if I had daycare or someone to watch the children,” Canty said. “But there’s a need.”
Canty works full time and recently had two babies placed with her, but she couldn’t find them a spot in any child care facility.
“I had two newborn babies,” she said. “And it was a hard, difficult process, because there was no openings for newborns in the daycares. Eventually, I had to find another placement with someone who could take the children.”
Canty’s not alone. For the shrinking number of Alaska foster parents, finding child care has become more and more difficult, especially for working foster parents. There are long wait lists to get into many child care facilities — and foster parents can’t wait months for a spot.
Aileen McInnis is the director of the Alaska Center for Resource Families, which helps recruit and train foster parents. She said sometimes foster parents will get a placement on a Friday and need to find child care by Monday.
“A lot of families can anticipate that they need child care, because of summer, because of starting to work, coming back from maternity care,” McInnis said. “But oftentimes foster care placements happen on an emergency basis.”
McInnis said another issue has to do with high rates of trauma among foster children. She said it can be difficult to find child care centers equipped with trauma-informed staff.
“Sometimes in child care, that behavior that might be indicative of coming from a place of trauma might be something that causes you to get kicked out of child care,” McInnis said. “And then the foster family, again, has to find a place that can be responsive to that child.”
Child care is also expensive, with the cheapest options often starting at around $1,000 a month per child. Foster parents receive about $26 a day for children under the age of 5. Canty, the Anchorage foster parent, said there are stipends from the state to help with the cost of child care, but they only range between $700 and $800.
“So when you add in Pampers, and then you can get some assistance with formula,” Canty said, “it’s a resource, but you’re still going to end up having to buy more cans of formula and diapers and paying for the extra daycare.”
State Office of Children’s Services director Kim Guay said the COVID-19 pandemic had already strained the state’s foster care system, resulting in a decline in the number of foster parents to watch Alaska’s roughly 2,600 foster children. She said the lack of child care is making it even worse.
“It’s a pretty big problem,” Guay said. “It’s exacerbating the fact that people don’t want to become foster parents.”
She said it’s even more difficult to find quality child care in rural parts of Alaska.
“You have aunties and uncles and grandparents that could step in and provide some of that care,” Guay said. “But they don’t have any of the facilities. And sometimes they’re not living in their hub communities where their family is.”
She said OCS has worked on some solutions, like increasing the stipend families get for children with behavioral or mental health needs. But there’s no easy fix.
“I don’t know the answer to like, how do we solve this?” Guay said. “Who’s got the funding for it? So that I definitely worry about.”
There are also regulations in place for foster children, since they are wards of the state.
Melrina Daniels, who’s fostered more than 60 children in her five years as a foster parent in Anchorage, said OCS requires anyone watching a foster child to have a background check and have fingerprints on file, even if they’re only watching them for a short time period.
“Let’s just say I have an emergency with one kid, and I have to take that kid to the hospital or to the doctor,” Daniels said. “I can’t leave that child with, let’s say, my mom who’s retired and she’s home, because she doesn’t have a background check. And she doesn’t have a fingerprint and she’s not registered with OCS. And so then you have another layer of, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do now?’”
Daniels helps foster families who need somebody to temporarily watch the children in their care, but the state has seen a decline in the number of people approved to provide that kind of respite care.
As a way to help solve the child care crisis that foster families face, Daniels is currently working to set up her own child care facility, specifically for foster children.
“My home is already set up because I do foster care,” she said. “And so I have a designated play area, just an entire family room that’s just designated for the kids. And so it was easy for me to just transform that into an in-home daycare.”
Daniels said she’s hoping to start up in the next three months, but as one caregiver, she’d only be able to watch up to 10 kids, depending on their age. And the need is so big. She said she’d love to see grants from the state to help other people trying to set up child care facilities. She also thinks OCS could take a stronger role in setting up similar programs.