Legislature(2017 - 2018)HOUSE FINANCE 519
04/12/2017 01:30 PM FINANCE
Note: the audio and video recordings are distinct records and are obtained from different sources. As such there may be key differences between the two. The audio recordings are captured by our records offices as the official record of the meeting and will have more accurate timestamps. Use the icons to switch between them.
Download Mp3. <- Right click and save file as
Download Video part 1. <- Right click and save file as
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HOUSE BILL NO. 151 "An Act relating to the duties of the Department of Health and Social Services; relating to training and workload standards for employees of the Department of Health and Social Services; relating to foster care licensing; relating to placement of a child in need of aid; relating to the rights and responsibilities of foster parents; relating to subsidies for adoption or guardianship of a child in need of aid; requiring the Department of Health and Social Services to provide information to a child or person released from the department's custody; and providing for an effective date." Foster youth in Alaska are not getting the chances they deserve. The Children Deserve a Loving Home Act aims to increase the likelihood that foster youth will have the same opportunities in life, and same health and well-being, as their peers. When roughly 40% of our foster youth end up homeless at some point in their lives after leaving care, and roughly 20% end up in jail, it's a call for reform. The nation's leading foster care non-profit, Casey Family Programs, has the correct goal to reduce the number of youth languishing in foster care by 50% by 2020. Alaska should join that effort. We should achieve it not by leaving youth in neglect and abuse to keep our foster care numbers down, but by getting neglected and abused youth out of the foster care system, into a permanent, loving home, much more quickly than we do now. Many Alaskans recognize that our child welfare system has room to improve; this bill seeks to make real positive changes that support youth and families, as well as the caseworkers who serve them. It's been well documented by many sources that when case workers are overworked, outcomes for children and families suffer. The Office of Children's Services (OCS) recommends standards of approximately 12 cases or families per worker - but today, most caseworkers are carrying caseloads that vastly exceed that amount (as high as 43 families in Wasilla, 36 in Homer, and 30 or more in six of the state's main OCS offices). Conditions in rural Alaska, especially the challenges of remote travel, make even a 12-family caseload overwhelming for workers in such regions. Beyond the risk of poorer outcomes, high caseloads contribute to high worker turnover, a costly problem that slows timelines to permanency. This bill seeks to improve both caseload levels and worker retention by implementing significant new training and workforce standards. New workers would receive a minimum of six weeks of training and would carry no more than six cases/families in the first three months, and 12 families in the first six months. These standards are recognized to improve outcomes, enable faster timelines to permanency, and allow caseworkers to perform their duties as intended. In addition, this bill provides for a number of other changes to support the well-being of youth in care, and to promote quicker timelines for children returning to, or finding new, permanent homes. The bill extends subsidies for adoptions and guardianships to age 21, to incentivize permanency and the closing of cases, and promotes contact with siblings and with previous out-of-home caregivers to promote the well- being of children and maintain a network of support for them. Another important tenet of this bill is enacting timelines for waivers to licensing requirements for relatives who may want to care for a child, but are not licensed foster parents. The bill also makes it easier for youth and foster parents to engage in normal day-to-day activities, such as going on vacation without prior caseworker approval, with fewer requirements. In addition, youth at age 14 are empowered to participate in their case plan. This bill also strengthens the requirement to search for relatives before placing a child with foster parents, recognizing that placements with family are often the best and most loving option for youth. Providing support, and a voice, for youth and families who need our help is perhaps one of our most important duties in public service. This bill seeks to give caseworkers the tools they need to carry out their duties to the best of their abilities, and it seeks to support youth and families with provisions that support well-being, make it easier for children to move out of the system and into a permanent home more quickly, and provide the necessary resources for a system that can function well. This bill is intended to create an environment where loving homes are the priority for all youth. 4:32:35 PM Co-Chair Seaton MOVED to ADOPT proposed committee substitute for HB 151, Work Draft 30-LS0451\I (Glover, 4/17/17). Representative Wilson OBJECTED for discussion. REPRESENTATIVE LES GARA, SPONSOR, DISTRICT 20, introduced himself. LAURA CHARTIER, STAFF, REPRESENTATIVE GARA, would walk the committee through the newest version of the bill, version I. 4:33:52 PM AT EASE 4:36:18 PM RECONVENED [Co-Chair Foster passed the gavel to Representative Guttenberg] Representative Gara indicated his staff would walk through the committee substitute changes to the bill. Ms. Chartier proceeded to explain that Section 1 provided a short title. Section 2 reflected the main change made from the previous committee substitute (CS) version. The section provided for funding for adoptions and guardianships for older youth. In the previous version of the bill it was written in such a way that all youth who were adopted, regardless of the age which they were adopted, would receive subsidies for adoptions and guardianships up to age 21. The current draft specifies that those adoption and guardianship subsidies would only apply only to youth ages 18 to 21. They were limiting it to the older youth population, which was the original intent of the bill. Also, the word "subsidy" was replaced with "stipend" to differentiate from any federal language or federal programs. She reiterated the most significant change from the previous version of the bill was limiting those adoption and guardianship subsidies to older youth, ages 18 through 21. Representative Wilson asked if she was talking about children who did not get adopted until they were 18. In other words, if they were to get adopted at 18 they would have the subsidy from 18 to 21 years of age. Representative Gara responded that the language would likely remove this portion of the bill. Currently, the state would pay a daily rate if a person adopted or was a guardian for a youth but only until age 18. The problem was that there was youth who were 18, 19, and 20 who did not have a permanent home. The goal was to extend the subsidies to age 21. However, federal law prohibited states from doing that for just 18, 19, and 20-year-old youths. If a person was adopted at age 1 they would receive the subsidy through age 21 even if they did not need the incentive. It became a $7.4 million fiscal note, something the state could not afford. It was not the priority piece of the legislation. Instead, as a work around, he suggested coming up with a state program in which federal law would not be used for youth 18, 19, and 20. However, it created a perverse incentive so that if a person was thinking about adopting a child at age 16 they might wait until age 18 to get 3 years of subsidies. There was no way to make the provision work and would likely be removed. Ms. Chartier continued to Section 3 which enabled contacts with previous out-of-home caregivers. She relayed there were 2 pieces of the bill that encouraged contact with people who might be close to a youth in their life and one of them was a previous out-of-home care giver. Section 4 required that a supervisor had to certify in writing at different times in the foster care process that a search for relatives had been carried out. She relayed that what was being added was that a supervisor had to certify in writing at different points in the foster care placement process that a search for relatives had been carried out. In other words, a supervisor would literally sign off that such a search had been carried out. Section 5 of the bill included language on what was called a prudent parent standard. It was language to make it easier for foster parents to make day-to-day decisions involving a child's activities. Section 6 engaged youth who were 14 and older in their case planning process, something adopted from federal language like the prudent parent standard. 4:40:41 PM Representative Wilson was not aware of case plans for adults. She wondered if there was a case plan for children. Representative Gara responded in the negative. He explained that youths 14 or older did not have the right to designate certain people to be part of their case planning. Youth over 14 years old would be able to nominate up to 2 extra people important to them to be part of their case planning team. Representative Wilson asked if it was a different type of plan than that of their parents. She agreed youth should have a say on where they were going. She was trying to figure out if there were two kinds of case plans. Representative Gara indicated it was a hybrid case. The case would involve both the interest of the child and the parents. He believed the child had a right to have a say in their future. In Section 6 it stated that a youth age 14 and older should be able to have a say in those involved in their case plan. The change would allow for up to 2 other people to be included in the case planning process. Representative Wilson expressed confusion. She relayed that she was only familiar with the way the case plans were run where a parent had to attend a parenting class, get a psychological evaluation, and follow an evaluation. Hopefully, if a parent followed the plan, they would be reunified with their child. If they chose not to participate, it could result in adoption. She was trying to better understand the section. She wondered if a child would be able to request where they wanted to go. Representative Gara responded affirmatively. He stated that the early case plan that had to be filed within the first 60 days was to figure out if the child would be able to return to their parents and what the parents would have to do to get their child back. After the first 60 days, there was still a case plan for a child. The Office of Children's Services (OCS) could provide more information about the later stages of the case plan. Representative Wilson agreed with the concept. She just was trying to figure out the mechanics. Representative Gara responded that it was the same case plan. He was hopeful that the result would be reunification early on. 4:45:26 PM Representative Thompson mentioned that earlier in the conversation the bill sponsor referred to a child over 14. He heard the representative clarify that it applied to 14 years or older. Ms. Chartier continued with Section 7. The section included the language to promote contact between siblings. It allowed for OCS to share contact information for siblings if it was in the best interest of both parties involved. Section 8 and 9 had a provision requiring a certification that a search for relatives had been carried out. It changed throughout the statute. In Section 10 there was a minor change to statutory language replacing the phrase, "One parent" with "Adult family member." She continued with Section 11 was another mention about sibling contact provisions. The main change in the bill could be found in Section 12. The change reflected the implementation of new training and workload standards for staff. She was sure Representative Gara would discuss the information in more detail. Essentially, it extended training for new workers up to 6 weeks and lowered their caseloads. Workers in their first 3 months would have 6 cases. Workers in their first 6 months would have a caseload of 12. There was a very minor language change to the section from the previous version of the bill. She referred to page 10 at the top of the page. It clarified the staff that was covered by the section of the bill. It was a small change to the language to make sure all the staff would be covered under the training and workload standards. She continued to Section 13 that encouraged assistance with family members obtaining variances to foster care licensing. If an adult family member did not necessarily want to go through the typical licensing process they could obtain a variance. Section 14 outlined that youth leaving care would be provided with official documents or receive assistance in obtaining their official documents. The bill contained a list of specific documents that were covered. Section 15 implemented a timeline for decisions to be made on applications for foster care home licensing or on variances to that licensing. They were not changing the process of applying but adding a timeline for a decision to be made either way within 45 days. Section 16 and 17 related to the applicability of the act. In the final section, Section 18 on the timeline. In version N of the bill the training standards were to be implemented in the first year and in year 2 there would be enough staffing to meet the new caseload standard. Version I pushed out the staffing to year 3. The department would have 3 full years to meet the staffing requirement. There were a couple of additional provisions to be implemented in year 1 including the involvement of children 14 years old and older in their case planning and the prudent parent standard as well as the certification of relative searches. Alternate-Chair Guttenberg referred to Section 13. He asked Representative Gara to speak to assisting a family member and attaining a license or any variances. 4:50:04 PM Representative Gara replied that it was a complicated process. Sometimes there was a family that was not a foster parent. He explained that there were 2 types of foster parents - relatives and out-of-home caregivers. Relatives did not need a license. There was a category of people who might not receive the daily reimbursement rate. In rural areas, especially in areas where there was little caseworker contact, the application process was complex. He hoped the bill would fix the caseworker contact issue. The provision stated that an out-of-home caregiver should be helped in the application process. Representative Wilson asked whether Section 13 would require family members to be certified or whether they would be able to get help if they wanted to be certified. She thought Representative Gara was responding affirmatively, as his head was nodding up and down. [Representative Gara nodded his head]. She also asked what would prevent a family member from getting any funding without being certified. Representative Gara deferred to OCS for the answer. Alternate-Chair Guttenberg asked if there were other items Representative Gara wanted to discuss. Representative Gara responded that he had reviewed all the changes from the version that passed the Health and Social Services Committee to the CS. It would be up to the committee to adopt the CS, then he could explain the bill. Representative Wilson WITHDREW her OBJECTION. There being NO OBJECTION, the CS for HB 151 was ADOPTED. Representative Pruitt commented that obviously Health and Social Services (HSS) had reviewed the bill, yet there was a CS. He wondered why some of the changes had not been identified in the subcommittee process. Representative Gara conveyed that the bill was his bill rather than a HSS bill. However, he had worked with the department as much as possible. The largest change was that there was a handful of youth, ages 18, 19, and 20 who he wanted to see get into an adoptive home or into a permanent guardianship. He thought it would be great to be able to offer a subsidy to families that could not afford to take children in. He reported not being able to find a workable and affordable way to do so. The big change came when he saw the $8 million fiscal note. He realized that by covering 18-year- old children, the state would have to cover 1-year-old, 2- year-old, and 3-year-old children as well which would be too costly. He was unable to find an affordable way to do it. Representative Pruitt confirmed that because of the fiscal note and the bill being heard in the House Finance Committee, the section was pulled out along with the fiscal note. Representative Gara relayed that the fiscal note came out late in the HSS committee process. He indicated that when he saw it he promised the committee he would fix or get rid of it. 4:54:28 PM Alternate-Chair Guttenberg OPENED Public Testimony for HB 151. Representative Gara indicated Ms. Metivier and Ms. Rein were online and could provide expert testimony. He asked if they could elaborate on the bill. 4:55:07 PM ROSALIE REIN, SELF, FAIRBANKS (via teleconference), was a licensed social worker on the front lines of OCS. She highlighted 2 components of HB 151 that were particularly helpful in improving relationships between workers and the families they served: training and caseloads. She reported that caseloads were directly tied to the worker being in contact with the children and families on a regular basis. She had heard over 5 hours of testimony at a townhall meeting held in Fairbanks. One of the main concerns raised by parents was a lack of communication with their workers. She could not adequately express the responsibilities of caseworkers. There were not enough hours in a day to keep good communication with invested parties. Many workers used nights and weekends to respond to the most urgent phone calls yet did not have time to do high level social work. She explained that high level social work encompassed fostering connections between siblings in separate homes and diligent relative searches. She spoke to the advantages of making these connections. Actual social work was about educating the parties of the importance of providing each child with a network of support. She reviewed the time- consuming grunt work it took to facilitate connections. She saw HB 151 as an opportunity to ensure that caseworkers had the training they needed to develop a skill set specific to child protection and to learn how to foster resiliency. She reviewed research that suggested that caseworkers who had social work education and appropriate training were better able to facilitate permanency. Higher caseloads and the high rate of frontline staff turnover was a growing problem within OCS. She favored the caseload cap in HB 151 and reviewed the consequences of staff turnover and the associated domino effect. Representative Gara indicated he had to attend another meeting. His staff would remain available for questions. 4:59:15 PM AMANDA METIVIER, FACING FOSTER CARE IN ALASKA, ANCHORAGE (via teleconference), spoke in support of HB 151. She reported having been in foster care for 3 years and had aged out of the system. She had been a licensed foster parent for the previous 10 years to teenagers within OCS. She highlighted a few things in the bill that were recommended by youth in the foster care system presently. Identifying relatives promoted kinship placement for children. The bill added a provision that an OCS supervisor had to certify that a relative search had been conducted. By doing this early on it avoided the risk of having to pull a child away from a foster parent they bonded with because of a grandmother coming forward. Sibling contact was a very important piece, as youth separated from their siblings often experienced more trauma. Older siblings were often caregivers to younger children. Being separated from them felt like having one's own child removed. The bill promoted ongoing contact with siblings. For example, if a young child was adopted while the sibling remained in the system, they would have the right to have their sibling's information, maintain contact through phone calls and social media, and have in-person visits to continue their relationship. She has had contact with countless young people who had been split up from their siblings in the system. She shared a story about a child who had seen her brother on the bus but had not spoken to him because she no longer knew him. She continued that another large piece of the bill dealt with older youth potentially being involved with their case planning. It was about engaging older youth, 14 and older, in the development and ongoing process of their case plan. For young people 14 and older, they should be at court hearings and attending team meetings. The bill would give them the option of inviting 2 people to be advocates on their behalf at meetings and to be a voice for them. She suggested that young people engaged in their plan were more likely to follow through and be onboard. She mentioned the idea of normalcy, which came from the federal language around the reasonable and prudent parent standard. It would allow foster parents to do things like sign a permission slip for a field trip. She provided an additional example. The largest piece of the legislation was the training and workload standards and burnout. She provided an example. 5:04:30 PM MARNA SANFORD, TANANA CHIEFS CONFERENCE, FAIRBANKS (via teleconference), testified in favor of HB 151. She expressed excitement about the bill. She highlighted a provision related to youths remaining in state custody until the age of 21. She supported the provision. She stated that foster children were not allowed to do many things such as attend sleepovers. She spoke about extremely high caseloads for social workers in Alaska. She understood state expenditures were under the gun, but she assured the committee the bill was a good investment. 5:07:29 PM TREVOR STORRES, ALASKA CHILDREN'S TRUST, ANCHORAGE (via teleconference), testified in strong support of HB 151. He remarked that the most valuable resource in the state was its children. Events such as child abuse and neglect had great impacts on brain and social development. It created more trauma for a child when OCS had to remove them from their home. He spoke to ensuring that the system did not hamper the treatment of trauma or add more trauma to a child's life. He suggested that due to high caseloads and the lack of training at OCS it was difficult to maintain assurances. The bill ensured that OCS had appropriate caseloads and training to provide the needed support for children in the system. The things case workers dealt with were difficult to manage with very high caseloads (2,3, or 4 times the national average). He discussed high staff turnover rates. He spoke to additional benefits of the legislation. 5:09:57 PM PAUL D. KENDALL, SELF, ANCHORAGE (via teleconference), did not have a position on the bill. He spoke to several items unrelated to HB 151. He wondered if any of the children were borderline babies or illegal aliens. He referred to money paid monthly to foster parents. He continued to relay testimony unrelated to the bill. 5:14:07 PM BYRON CHARLES, SELF, KETCHIKAN (via teleconference), relayed a personal experience where he witnessed a child being told a GED was not enough. He did not understand why the legislature could not make a right decision. He advocated careful background checks and careful monitoring. He thought the system was too cumbersome. He spoke of having college students work with children. Alternate-Chair Guttenberg CLOSED Public Testimony for HB 151. Alternate Chair Guttenberg reported that amendments for HB 151 were due in the chairman's office by 5:00 PM Friday, April 14, 2017. 5:17:27 PM Representative Wilson asked for a moment to talk to the department about a case plan and a 14-year-old. CHRISTY LAWTON, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL SERVICES, introduced herself. Representative Wilson was unclear about children participating in their own case plan. She asked about a child that was 14 years old or older attending the team decision making with the parents underneath the case plan for the parents or another type of case plan. Ms. Lawton responded that every child was provided a case plan when they came into care in addition to their parents. Representative Wilson wondered if the children would participate in team decision making with their parents, or just their own plan with 2 adults of their choice. Ms. Lawton responded that typically team decision making meetings were not about case planning. She believed the provision of the bill was that when they were having a meeting about case planning and talking about permanency or services for youth that were 14 or older they could bring in adult supports. Currently, they should be including children in the discussion about their case planning development as age appropriate. The Office of Children's Services did that in various forms including home visits and various means. Representative Wilson asked if there were 2 separate meetings. Ms. Lawton believed the intent of the sponsor on the specific language was about a meeting for the child. It might be possible that the parent would be there and sometimes older youth participated in team decision making meetings with their parents when they were discussing placement. The preferred practice was for older youth to be engaged in all the meetings as appropriate. Representative Wilson asked if a case plan was written for the parent. She had never known a child to be involved in case plan meetings, as they were more about the parents following through. She asked if there were currently older children involved in the parents' case plan. Ms. Lawton responded that typically a child did not participate in a case plan meeting. However, she heard the representative using the term "team decision making meetings" which were different. Representative Wilson would have a big problem with children suddenly being in with their parents because it could cause a significant amount of misunderstanding. She did not have a problem if the child was having a meeting separate from the one their parents had. She did not have a problem with 2 separate meetings. Ms. Lawton responded, "Correct." Alternate-Chair Guttenberg reviewed the agenda for the following day. HB 151 was HEARD and HELD in committee for further consideration.