Legislature(2005 - 2006)BUTROVICH 205
04/28/2006 01:30 PM HEALTH, EDUCATION & SOCIAL SERVICES
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1:41:59 PM SB 287-POSTSECONDARY TUITION FOR FOSTER CHILDREN CHAIR DYSON announced SB 287 to be up for consideration. SENATOR JOHNNY ELLIS, sponsor, presented the bill. He said that in any given year there are approximately 1500 children in some form of foster care in the state due to abuse or neglect in their homes. Of that number, approximately 300 are 16, 17, and 18 year olds who are aging out of the foster care system and that the state offers very little, if any, support for these individuals. He said that SB 287 proposes using existing agencies and establishing a statute that would allow cooperation among state agencies, the University of Alaska (UA), the Office of Children's Services (OCS), and the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI), to establish education savings accounts for these children. SENATOR ELLIS said that the University of Alaska 529 college savings accounts are managed by T. Rowe Price and are said by experts to be among the finest educational savings programs in the nation. He remarked that the 529 savings accounts are a great tool for getting these children off to a good start. He emphasized that the proposed arrangement would require nothing more than a statute and cooperation among existing state agencies and would not require the establishment of a new program or new government funding. 1:46:03 PM CHAIR DYSON moved to adopt SB 287 Version F, as the working document, and objected for the purpose of discussion. 1:46:18 PM CHAIR DYSON asked whether people are permitted to establish the scholarship funds for foster children at the present time. GABRIEL ACEVES, staff to Senator Johnny Ellis, replied that the University of Alaska College Savings Plan accepts donations to open 529 accounts. However, the state does not have a program to advertise the opportunity for a friend or relation of the beneficiary to make donations. 1:47:23 PM SENATOR ELLIS remarked that currently, someone interested in making such a donation would have no way of knowing who the foster children are, due to privacy and protection issues. He said that is why it is necessary to establish cooperation between the University, OCS, which knows the identities of the foster children, and OFBCI, which would be responsible for promoting the idea. 1:48:02 PM JULIE MORRIS, from the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, asked Mike Lesmann, Community Relations Manager for the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), Office of Children's Services, to join her before the committee. 1:48:42 PM MIKE LESMANN, introduced himself. 1:48:54 PM MS. MORRIS said that she is excited about this bill because she sees the OFBCI as the vehicle to target foster children who have aged out of the system at 18 and might otherwise end up homeless, with nothing, and nowhere to go. She said that the bill would allow the OFBCI to target non- profits, community and faith-based organizations that would donate to these programs so that, working together with the the OCS, they could create a program that is not an entitlement program. She added that there are a lot of people who want to contribute to foster care children but have no way to do it. 1:50:35 PM CHAIR DYSON asked what prevents the OFBCI from doing this now. MS. MORRIS replied that the office, which has only three employees, is heavily burdened by the current demands of that office. She added that it has a tremendous need for technical assistance and for assistance applying for grants since many non-profits and faith-based organizations do not know how to partner with government. She said that partnering with the OCS makes sense because the privacy laws governing foster children and children in state custody are very strict and, through their partnership, OFBCI could maintain that confidentiality and still provide a service to these kids. 1:52:23 PM CHAIR DYSON said that his question was "What keeps you from doing it?" and part of her answer was that OFBCI does not have the manpower. He remarked that he does not see how this bill would change that. MS. MORRIS replied that their office has only been in existence for a year and is still trying to establish itself. She said that about $275,000 was cut from the House and that money was needed to put an office together and hire a program officer to work with OCS. 1:53:31 PM SENATOR GREEN asked why there is no fiscal note. CHAIR DYSON said that he is not clear on that. 1:53:50 PM MR. LESMANN said that the Office of Children's Services is also excited about this program, and supports SB 287. He said that it has two suggestions for consideration. First, adding an age requirement to focus on youth who have been in custody on or after age 16. The existing language states that "eligibility for the program is contingent on having been placed in foster care for not less than two years", so a child who was in foster care, for example, from age one to age three, would be eligible. Second, the OCS understands that the sponsors do not intend to restrict eligibility for children who have been placed with a relative who may not be a licensed foster parent or in a residential treatment facility, but language on page 2, line 14 talks about the "child who has been placed in a foster home". It would recommend replacing "a foster home" with "out-of-home care", so that it is clear that the language applies to any child who was taken into state custody and placed outside of his or her own home. 1:55:48 PM CHAIR DYSON asked him how long he has been with the department. MR. LESMANN replied that he had been with the OCS since May 20, 2000. CHAIR DYSON recalled working with Karen Perdue, the previous commissioner, on other things for kids who are "aging out" and said he believed that one of them addressed postsecondary education. He asked if he had any knowledge of that. MR. LESMANN responded that OCS has a program called the Education and Training Voucher Program (Alaska ETV Program) that began in 2001 when the federal government passed the Federal Chaffee Foster Care Independence Act. It set up money for postsecondary education for children in the foster care system. Students can receive up to $5,000 per year for academic expenses through it. Also, the University offers up to five Foster Youth Tuition Waiver Scholarships per year. The OCS has a program coordinator in the deputy commissioner's office who is responsible for an independent living program and, in each of 4 regions in the state, they have a dedicated caseworker who is assigned to each of the children aging out of foster care. 1:58:11 PM CHAIR DYSON asked if he could provide documentation to explain those programs. MR. LESMANN replied that he would be happy to do so. CHAIR DYSON asked what keeps the things that Senator Ellis is talking about in SB 287 from happening now. MR. LESMANN answered he is not sure how to answer that question, because he doesn't understand the University's current program. The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, because it is part of DHSS, as is OCS, has no confidentiality issues within the department. The OCS obviously knows who the kids are and who might be appropriate for a savings account, but the procedures are not set up and they are not referenced in state law. 1:59:46 PM SENATOR ELTON said that it seems important to include younger children because foster parents and out-of-home care providers often form attachments with a foster child and may be particularly interested in providing for the education of that child. MR. LESMANN replied that it is probably a public policy call and the OCS's recommendation is based on criteria from the Chaffee Foster Care Independence Act, which established that the child th must have been in custody on or after his 16 birthday to be eligible for the Education and Training Voucher Program. He asked the committee to consider a young child who has been in state custody and placed outside his home from age one to age three, and who is then reunited with his parents and dismissed from state custody. The OCS would have to track that child for the next 15 years, until he became eligible for the benefit. 2:02:17 PM CHAIR DYSON remarked that the Senate passed HB 408 yesterday or the day before, which cleaned up a lot of child-related issues. One section of that bill stipulated that the permanent fund dividend (PFD) belonging to a child in out-of-home placement must be held in an interest-bearing trust or escrow account until the child is adopted. He asked how the OCS anticipates disbursing PFD funds and accumulated interest to the 18-year-old who is just getting out of state custody. MR. LESMANN replied that a number of scenarios must be considered. If a child were released from state custody and reunited with his parents before the age of 18, the PFD trust account would be released to the biological parents. If reunification with the biological parents was not possible and a legal guardian was named, HB 408 stipulated that the trust account would remain protected until the child reached 18 and would then be released to the child. CHAIR DYSON asked how the funds would be released to the child. MR. LESMANN responded that if the child was no longer in state custody and no caseworker or independent living specialist had been assigned, there would be little or no further oversight. CHAIR DYSON said he appreciates that for most purposes this state considers an 18-year-old an emancipated adult, but he wondered under what circumstances the state would offer additional services to a child after age 18. He said that his understanding was that, unless he were of diminished capacity, the state would offer a child additional services only if he specifically asked for them. MR. LESMANN confirmed that understanding. 2:06:08 PM CHAIR DYSON asked whether there are any limits on the federal money that Mr. Lesmann mentioned earlier in his testimony. MR. LESMANN responded that the federal government gave OCS $176,000 during the past year for the Alaska ETV Program, a little less than during the prior year. CHAIR DYSON calculated that OCS could give $6,000 to 28 kids or $3,000 to 50 kids and asked how many children are actually aging out each year with no guardian, no reunification with biological parents, and no adoption. MR. LESMANN responded that he doesn't have that number; he knows how many children age out each year based on age range, but not in terms of status and a permanency plan. MS. MORRIS showed Mr. Lesmann the sponsor statement. MR. LESMANN said that the sponsor statement indicates that nearly 500 children in state custody age out each year with no permanency plan. CHAIR DYSON said that he questions that number, but does not have the information. He asked Mr. Lesmann if he could stay to answer questions later in the meeting. MR. LESMANN said yes. 2:07:58 PM CHIP WAGGONER, Executive Director, Alaska Conference of Catholic Bishops, the public policy arm of the Roman Catholic Church in Alaska, commended Senator Ellis for his innovative idea to assist foster children who want to attend postsecondary education and thanked members of the committee who have been involved with foster care issues both professionally and personally. Mr. Waggoner pointed out that children need many things: love, an adult who cares for them, continuity and certainty, which provide a sense of security. He related the story of a foster child who was assigned to a group home and had the opportunity to get into a better academic environment through the assistance of a caring adult. He said that this bill would allow other foster children to have the same opportunity by bringing the issue forward to people who are in a financial position to donate. Also, this bill would make it clear that the OCS could share information with the University to ensure that the program gets implemented. He stressed his support for the bill and urged the committee to push it through. 2:12:09 PM CHAIR DYSON said that nothing precludes Mr. Waggoner and the Archdiocese from setting up scholarships now and making them available to kids who are aging out. MR. WAGGONER responded that is probably correct, but that the Alaska Conference of Catholic Bishops didn't know about it and he doubted that members of his church knew about it. He said that the instruction to "identify donors and beneficiaries" is important, because it would allow the OFBCI to put it on its website. CHAIR DYSON asked Mr. Waggoner whose website he had referred to. MR. WAGGONER responded that the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, OCS, University of Alaska, and the Alaska Conference of Catholic Bishops could put it on their websites. CHAIR DYSON said he does not mean to argue, but he is not aware of anything that prevents any of those groups from doing that now. 2:13:34 PM JAMES F. LYNCH, Associate Vice President for Finance, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, testified by teleconference in favor of SB 287. He was the drafter of the original college-savings program for the University in 1991, and of the current college savings program, the goal of which is to create access to continuing education, and to change the mindset of children and parents from "if I go to college" to "when I go to college." He said that the University of Alaska contributes five four-year scholarships every year through the federal program. 2:16:19 PM He said that, as a result of the permanent fund dividend and promotion of the college savings program, approximately 56 percent of their participants come from families with annual household incomes of less than $52,000. A similar national program shows only 17 percent of participants with annual household incomes of less than $52,000. MR. LYNCH said that the college savings program has a provision for state agencies and non-profits to open and maintain accounts for beneficiaries and has special provisions for un-named accounts on which the opening agency is the owner; but he thinks it is desirable to have a program structured specifically to meet the goals of OCS with regard to foster children. He also pointed out that this type of program is long-term and it may be 20 or more years before the money is taken out and used for education, so it is important that the program be administered by an organization or agency that is going to be around that long. A non-profit could administer the program, but its objectives may not be the same as the OCS, and there is less assurance that it will be in existence long enough to serve the participants. He views this program as a fairly low-cost tool the department can use to meet its objectives. 2:19:49 PM MR. LYNCH said the university manages 176,000 college savings accounts, so it is important, administratively, not to have a subgroup of accounts with special rules. 2:21:29 PM He said that very little information would be needed regarding the beneficiaries. MR. LYNCH requested a change on page 1, Section 1, AS 47.05.400(a)(2) which reads, "create a mechanism for the University of Alaska to establish and maintain accounts". He said it should read, "create a mechanism for the department to establish and maintain accounts". 2:22:31 PM CHAIR DYSON said that there are two places in the bill where it adds language about confidentiality: page 4, line 5... MR. LYNCH replied that the college savings programs are exempt from the Public Records Act and that those records are maintained on a confidential basis. CHAIR DYSON asked if state code needed amending to make what the committee is trying to do happen. MR. LYNCH replied no, that the records will be confidential, however the OCS might need authorization to give the University the names. 2:23:31 PM SENATOR WILKEN commented that Mr. Lynch crafted the 1991 legislation that created the college savings plan and helped Senator Tim Kelly in 1998 to reauthorize and expand it. It was recently recognized by either Financial World or the Wall Street Journal as the best in the nation. He commended Mr. Lynch for his work and thanked him for his effort. CHAIR DYSON asked Mr. Lynch if, in his opinion, this legislation is necessary to enable private donations to foster children MR. LYNCH replied that it would be extremely helpful. 2:25:03 PM CHAIR DYSON asked Mr. Lesmann to convince the committee that his department can handle the coordination and maintenance of records for this program with existing manpower and without additional expense, in order to deal with the matter without a fiscal note. MR. LESMANN said that he would not try to persuade the committee in that regard. He admitted that the department's failure to provide a fiscal note was an oversight and accepted responsibility for that. The OFBCI would probably need approximately $80,000 to add one full-time program coordinator, if the money that was removed from the House budget is not restored. He said that the department would submit an $80,000 fiscal note. 2:26:41 PM MR. LYNCH interjected that once an account is established, the college-savings program would do all the recordkeeping. CHAIR DYSON stated he was having trouble reconciling that with what Mr. Lynch said earlier. He pointed out that Mr. Lynch wanted the committee to amend page 1, line 12. MR. LYNCH stated that the OCS would be the account owner, and the University would seek approval from the department to withdraw funds. If the funds weren't claimed by the beneficiary for whom they were originally intended, they would be available to the department for use by another claimant. 2:28:19 PM CHAIR DYSON said that he would hear from one more person and then the committee would set the matter aside for a few minutes, to allow the sponsor to decide what to do with the proposed amendments and/or the fiscal note. 2:28:48 PM AMANDA METIVIER a former foster child and a student at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, testified in support of the bill. She said that, although there are opportunities available through the Alaska ETV Program and the tuition waiver, they are not enough. She disagreed with the implementation of an age- eligibility requirement of 16 or over and cited her sister's experience as an example. Her sister was placed in foster care at age 12 and placed with a legal guardian at 15, so she would not be eligible for this program even though she is now 18 and without educational resources. 2:30:46 PM CHAIR DYSON thanked Ms. Metivier for her testimony. He announced that SB 287 would be set aside.