Youths and graduates of the system offer alternatives.
By LISA DEMER
November 15th, 2008
Before a roomful of important adults, foster kids and graduates of the system talked about being put on powerful psychiatric drugs and undergoing "treatment" when what might have helped more was a chance for a regular life with sports and clubs and jobs.
Friday's day-long legislative meeting drew a number of state officials, lawmakers and advocates, and focused on how to improve Alaska foster care.
In May, a group of foster care youth and those who have aged out came up with eight ways to improve the system. Among the identified problems: Overprescribed psychiatric drugs.
Too many foster children are prescribed psychiatric drugs, the kids said. They are labeled as disturbed, defiant or anxious when in reality they are just reacting to the trauma of their broken families and the difficulties of living in state custody.
Candice Tucker remembered when she first went into foster care two years ago, at age 15, because her mother couldn't take care of her.
"I was freaking out because I had just gotten into care. I was having a hard time so they thought I needed residential," Tucker, now 17, said.
For her, the treatment center helped, but she questions all the drugs doctors put her on.
"There are natural things in life that stress you out. You get depressed. You get sad or you get angry or anxious. They are natural emotions. I feel being in foster care and being on as many anti-psychotics and anti-depressants that I've been on -- they see me for a week and they assume that's the way I've always been," Tucker said, her voice soft but her manner open. Later she explained that she's shy, but wants to make life better for other foster children if she can.
Now, as she's preparing to start at the University of Alaska Anchorage in January, Tucker wants to ease off the powerful medications.
"I need to have my mind with me. I need to be alert," she said.
Slade Martin is 20 now, but he spent 15 years in Alaska's foster care system and shuffled through, by his count, 21 different foster homes, emergency placements and treatment centers. He once was treated at a local psychiatric hospital and said every kid there is put on psychiatric drugs.
The kids want the medications cut back and think that will help them focus better on school and function better in the world.
"I don't think meds are always the best option," Martin said.
A NEED TO BE NORMAL
Counseling is traumatic to some kids -- telling your story to one stranger and then another, said Becca Shier, now 18 and a UAA student in social work who has been in foster care nearly six years.
Some, like her, will never open up. Instead of making them feel like something is wrong with them, Shier told the legislators, why not get them involved in extra curricular activities so they can be part of a regular school experience?
"So they could be normal."
Teens in foster care too often end up in treatment centers because the state has no other home for them; they are the "foster homeless," Shier said.
Martin said he spent 2 1/2 years at an Anchorage treatment center because no foster family would take him in. "Some crazy people up in there," he told legislators.
He said he was "diagnosed with everything under the rainbow" but doesn't think anything was really wrong with him. Other kids stabbed people and punched holes in the walls and were scary, he said during a break.
Tammy Sandoval, director of the state Office of Children's Services, said later that she was taken with what the youths had to say. The idea of kids spending months or years in residential treatment centers for lack of a family is troubling and she wants to look into the matter.
But the fact is, the state doesn't have enough foster homes, especially for teenagers, she said.
Sandoval said she planned to discuss the medication issues with the state's director of behavioral health.
The foster kids and alumni at the meeting are especially articulate and successful, said state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who grew up in foster care in New York state and was one of the main organizers of Friday's session. Foster kids too often struggle in school, end up homeless and are unemployed as young adults, according to studies presented at the meeting.
The kids who spoke Friday have been finding their voice through an advocacy group called Facing Foster Care in Alaska that now numbers about 140 statewide, said its president, Amanda Metivier, who at 24 helped organize the conference and is weeks away from graduating from UAA with a social work degree.
She'll be one of the first to graduate on a special tuition waiver specifically for foster kids. The foster care group wants all foster kids to be offered that benefit. Now just 10 foster kids a year get that at UAA.
At their May meeting, they also agreed to push for Medicaid health benefits to age 21, Medicaid-paid braces, and money to help older foster kids live on their own.
But state Sen. Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat at the meeting, said even sympathetic legislators may have trouble getting new programs into the state budget with the recent dramatic drop in the price of oil.
Letters to the Editor: http://www.adn.com/help/letters/
And here http://tinyurl.com/6o747r are a few videos where Texas foster kids are speaking out too.
REFRESH - Go to Home-Page