Columns 2003

Cutting social programs inevitably hurts us all

As the budget process wends its painful way through the halls of Juneau, I figure I might as well throw in my two cents.  It’s inevitable that as state revenues continue to decline, cuts will be made and additional financial commitments will be required of us no matter how much people yell and scream. No matter what you call it, when you propose taking money out of people’s pockets, they are going to be very vocally dismayed.

As cuts are pondered, let me offer this suggestion to our legislators. If you are going to cut the substance abuse rehab programs, the domestic violence counseling centers, the abused women’s shelters or any programs of that nature, then please change state law about terminating parental rights on children in the DFYS system.

With these programs available, I watch parents struggle to regain their foothold in the sober world in order to have their children returned to them. For many of them, these programs offer the only chance to get their lives back on track and their family back together.  And even the best of these programs are sometimes not enough.  Alcohol and drugs are insidious problems that take overwhelming commitment on a daily basis to overcome.  Domestic violence is a learned behavior that takes a strong will to face and an even stronger will to change. 

The programs we currently have are barely enough to keep up with the tide of people seeking help. Take these programs away, reduce their funding so that they reach even less people, and the ones who will suffer the most are the children waiting in foster care for their parents to return.

So if our state legislators decide that this is where they must cut some funds in order for Alaska to get its financial house in order, then I ask them to please change the law regarding termination of parental rights. Change the law so that DFYS can terminate parental rights sooner rather than later. Change the law because without the needed programs in place, the waiting lists will be even longer than they are now. And every day a parent waits to get into a program is a day their child sits in the uncertain future of foster care. Every day a parent is delayed in getting treatment because there is no treatment available, is another day a child is taught that life is full of uncertainties, that the people you love and depend on can disappear from your life in a second, and that no matter how good you are, you can’t make things better.

It is the rare parent that overcomes the problems that led to their children’s removal without professional help. Decreasing the programs available to parents increases the amount of time children sit in a foster care limbo because you can’t go to court and terminate parental rights if the parents are stating they want treatment but it is just not available.  You have to wait until they have received treatment and have then shown they cannot follow through and maintain a sober and violence free home before you can make any move to free the children up for adoption.

If reducing available programs means that the parents must wait a year to get treatment, then that adds an extra year to the time the child is in state care.  And no matter how loving and caring a foster parent is, they are simply no substitute for the comfort and surety that comes with knowing you are home and this is your forever family.  Every child needs and deserves that sense of security while growing up or they risk following their parents’ footsteps. I know that’s true because I have second and third generation children on my caseload.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, the state makes a lousy parent. If we have to take away a child’s birth parents, and we can’t afford the programs that will allow them to be reunited, then we need to make every effort to give that child new parents sooner rather than later.