Despite heroes in its ranks, Alaska’s foster care system needs more help to do its job right

The recent death of foster parent Marvell Johnson troubles us deeply. We have both fostered children and cared so much about those children that we went on to adopt them. There are about 2,200 hurt children in the foster care system right now and it is a shame to lose an experienced and committed foster parent like Marvell Johnson.

What further troubles us is the state Juvenile Justice Department’s recent assurance that there are systems in place to keep foster parents and foster children safe. The fact is, while these systems do exist, the system is so understaffed and underfunded that they cannot be implemented consistently.

As former foster parents, we can attest to the fact that our children’s dedicated social workers simply never had the time to do the weekly check-ins and monthly visits that are mandated to ensure that foster parents and children are safe and supported. Instead, these heroes of the child welfare system are running from one emergency to another and managing by crisis rather than in the thoughtful, systematic way we all wish they could.

We don’t write to lay blame today. The failure of the system is no one person’s fault. In fact, there are heroes throughout the system who work hard to ensure that abused and neglected children in our state are made safe and supported. These unsung heroes work to ensure children are either placed back with biological parents who have stabilized or received needed supports, or are adopted by kind-hearted individuals who believe that any child deserves a chance to be healthy and happy.

We claim that children are our most important natural resource, that nothing is more important than our children, and that no child deserves to be hungry or hurt. Frankly, we talk a good game but our walk is not following our talk.

Marvell Johnson is the second foster parent killed by his foster child this year. Mollie Ragonesi was killed on July 21 in Wasilla by her foster son as well. We don’t blame the children in these cases. They are hurt kids who need every bit of help we can give them. In most cases, those hurt by the foster care system are children. In fact, the same day of Mollie Ragonesi’s death, Peter Tony of Bethel was sentenced to 66 years in prison for sexually abusing foster children in his care. We could fill this page with the lists of acts of neglect and abuse against children within the system.

Let’s not waste time with blame. Instead let’s focus our energy on what we can do to ensure that children who enter the foster care system, and the adult heroes who are working to make sure that they are safe, have the tools and the support they need. We will be watching our elected officials, hoping that they will decide to put into practice the belief that children are our most important natural resource.

Ivy Spohnholz and Sarah Haltness, with their husbands, each fostered and then adopted foster children. Spohnholz works for The Salvation Army and Haltness is a realtor.

This opinion piece first appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on Tuesday, November 4, 2014. It can be seen on the ADN website.

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