AmyJo and Mike Howard, pictured with their children Reece, Alex, and Braden. (Photo courtesy of AmyJo Howard)

When the safety and well being of a child is at risk at home, the state steps in and places them in foster care. But that can mean a range of things, from temporary care with a relative to adoption by a foster parent. Each home environment is unique and the type of foster care children may require varies in every case.

KCAW’s Enrique Pérez de la Rosa sat down with a panel of local foster care experts from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Youth Advocates of Sitka and the Alaska Office of Children’s Services to discuss different types of care and what it means to be a foster parent.

You can listen to the full audio of KCAW’s panel discussion on foster care in Alaska below.

KCAW hosted a panel discussion on foster care on Monday, May 6th.

AmyJo Howard was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. The disease ended her ability to have her own children.

But that change in her body brought about an even bigger change in her life. Howard and her husband decided to become foster parents.

“We have opened our home to kids that need love and structure,” Howard said. Howard and her husband have gone on to adopt three of the ten children they’ve fostered.

The decision to put a child in the Alaska foster care system — or out for adoption — is made by the state. While the criteria vary widely, the bottom line is a determination that the child is at risk.

About three thousand children — from newborns to teenagers — are in foster care every month in Alaska, according to OCS, the state Office of Children’s Services.

In every case, OCS aims to reunite children with their families by working with them to create a safe environment for children to return to.

In the meantime, they’re placed in a foster home where a parent like Howard works to meet daily needs  that many of us took for granted growing up.

“I think in my home, it’s mostly the structure, it’s the safety, it’s the knowing that there will be dinner on the table, that there won’t be yelling or screaming, I think it’s just that they know that they are loved and that tomorrow is a new day,” she said.

A stable home may be straightforward, but making foster children feel secure in a new environment is a challenge. Howard says she has to teach them to let their guard down and feel at home.

AmyJo and Mike Howard, pictured with their children Reece, Alex, Braden. (Photo courtesy of AmyJo Howard)

“It’s not easy,” Howard said. “If you think that it’s going to be a cakewalk, it’s not. Each child is different. Each child comes from a different background. Each child comes from a different situation. You have to adapt to what that child needs and what that child wants.”

Because the needs of children vary, there are different kinds of foster care. Because her husband is Alaska Native, Howard can provide a culturally connected home to indigenous children in the foster care system.

Breanna Stewart is a case worker with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska who focuses on children protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act, which governs how Native American children can be removed from their families. Maintaining the connection to a child’s culture is just as important to their well being as providing a stable home, she said.

“If they lose getting to go to culture class or eating herring eggs or however it is that they honor and celebrate their traditions and their culture within their family, if they lose that, then they’re losing another part of what makes them who they are,” Stewart said.

Another type of fostering involves their behavioral health. Youth Advocates of Sitka director Charlie Woodcock says some children require therapeutic foster care, or TFC, focuses on treating a child’s behavioral issues.

“And that can range from individual therapy to family therapy,” Woodcock said. “With TFC, the home may not be the issue, it may just be that they youth is having issues and can’t stabilize in the home.”

Providing therapeutic foster care requires a lot of training and clinical support for parents. But most placements don’t require more than just being there for at-risk children.

“AmyJo has been a foster parent for a long time and she’s a veteran and she’s awesome,” Kathy Branch, a protective services specialist with OCS, said. “But you don’t have to come in at AmyJo’s level. You could be a foster parent who just does emergency placements for a few days. You can be a foster parent who only takes a certain age child, or a certain sex child. You can customize this for your family and your needs.”

Branch says all someone needs to become a foster parent is to be part of a family ready to love and support a child. But AmyJo Howard says she doesn’t do it alone. She depends on social workers from STA and OCS, and on Sitkans at large for support.

“When children are in foster care, people go above and beyond with helping,” Howard said. “It takes a village to raise a child and I think this village is amazing.”