By CHARLIE PIERCE | CANDIDATE FOR GOVERNOR
As the drama of the political season unfolds, none of the headlines or debate discussions have addressed true news, like the State of Alaska’s Child in Need of Aid crisis.
Alaskan politicians have not been able to resolve this epidemic that has plagued our state for at least 15 years and it’s not front-page news. The State of Alaska’s new go-to agency, the State of Alaska Department of Family and Community Services was commissioned in July.
This same agency was previously DFYS (Division of Family & Youth Services) and OCS (Office of Children’s Services). The name has changed; however, not enough changes have remedied the fact that over 3,000 of our Alaskan children are in crisis, and yet Juneau never talks about it. Why aren’t these alarming statistics front page news in the newspaper today?
Yes, there are over 3,000 Alaska children in state custody. This means the State of Alaska has taken control away from 6,000 parents to raise their own children. A large percent of these children is Alaskan Native from our rural communities. To visualize these 3,000 young people, imagine the entire population of Kotzebue or an entire cruise ship full of children. You and I are responsible for their safety. And yet, many of them are anything but safe. These children deserve, at a minimum, to have safe, stable, loving homes.
While on the campaign trail, I learned of one 7-year-old child, Isaac. Isaac has been a ward of the state, off and on, his whole 7 years of life. He has been in 27 foster homes, stretching from his home in rural Alaska to foster homes 1,000 miles away from his village.
Isaac told his social worker he wants to be “OCS” when he grows up as he was moved from one foster home to another. This is Isaacs’ normal. Why? We pulled him from his family long ago and we are responsible 24/7/365 to care, nurture and hopefully see he is loved. How can this developing child not be further injured by being endlessly shuffled through 27 strange homes? And when he is moved from one home to another, garbage bags are used as his luggage. Garbage bags. It is humiliating for me, as an Alaskan, to know we use garbage bags to transport this little guy’s precious treasures.
This is real life happening right under our noses. Why don’t we ever hear about it? These child cases are all classified “confidential” by the courts and are closed the public. With today’s system, a family member can harm a child, and even though OCS is aware of it, the perpetrator is rarely charged and held accountable. And because no one hears a peep, the abuse can continue. And it does.
Every Alaskan could share a story about this silent epidemic. In a group setting, just bring up the words “foster care,” “OCS,” or “child protection.” You will quickly realize that children in need of aid in Alaska grow up, they become a human trafficking targets and a statistic in the correctional and mental health systems. This is grim. This is tough. This is where Alaskans need to get tough.
Every Alaskan I know cares about children. Our state does not adequately support our foster homes, so we do not have enough of them. Our state agencies are not partnering enough with the rural communities, Native corporations, and tribes, so we are constantly battling one another. There is a revolving door shortage of child protection officers/social workers, but this is not a surprise. For $24 an hour, these super-people must fly into communities through every kind of weather, enter homes, investigate cases, write legal pleadings, testify in court, and take kids from families then get up the next day and do it again.
And yet, for the past two decades, the Division of Family & Community Services (formerly DFYS, OCS) has enjoyed the biggest budgets of public money in the state. Where do the millions of dollars go? Let us dig into the line items of those budgets and see how responsible Juneau has been with public funds set aside for children like Isaac.
The more I learn of this shattered system of our children in crisis, the more I am convinced that Juneau is ignoring these very tough issues.
As governor, children in need of aid will receive my immediate attention. I am ready to shake up Juneau and get this crisis in the forefront. Alaskans have been ghosted on this subject for years, it is time for transparency relating to this epidemic.
As governor, I will find the answer to these questions of “why” and I will demand cooperation with the communities and tribes of Alaska. Tough leadership is needed more than ever now in the State of Alaska. We cannot be proud of the Alaska Child in Need of Aid crisis, but it is time this makes the front-page news. Isaac and the other 2,999 children are counting on us.
Charlie Pierce is a candidate for governor and the former mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.