All hands needed to prevent child abuse

Christy Lawton

In the last couple of weeks, our community has heard about the horrific allegations being made against an adoptive mother who is also a former foster parent. It is weeks like these that make me wonder why I've stayed working in child welfare so long. Why would anyone want to deal with the insidious and depressing reality of abuse that children around the state suffer every day? It's a mostly thankless job and one where even if you are doing everything right, tragedies can and do happen.

Personally, I've stayed for the families. I serve them first and foremost. The families we serve, by and large, are just like you and me. They love their children; they desire to have safe and loving homes. But, they are struggling with addictions, mental illness, racial discrimination, poverty and domestic violence.

Parenting is the toughest job out there; can you imagine doing it in the face of any of those problems? Our resource families, both licensed and unlicensed caregivers, not only are asked to take on the challenge of 24/7 parenting, they are asked to do it for children who are not their own and often have special needs. Most of these families do so solely because they want to help, and this is how they choose to contribute to their community.

In the last weeks the question I've been asked most frequently is, "how could this happen?" Does the Office of Children's Services (OCS) need more staff? Is OCS staff trained well enough? Did OCS do all that we could have and should have done? Should OCS monitor adoptive placements until the child is 18?

OCS's primary challenge is not lack of allocated resources, it is retention. If we could keep all of our positions filled -- from the clerical support staff to the line worker to the state office leadership -- we would be at or below recommended caseload levels. Our front-line caseworkers stay an average of 18 months or less. They often leave at just about the time they start to really understand the job.

As to the issue of whether OCS should be required to monitor adoptive placements post-finalization, please consider the following. Currently, the law does not allow for that type of monitoring. Government oversight is intrusive and Alaskans are known for their desire to have less government, not more. Once a family adopts, I believe that they are due the same rights and respect as any birth family. That means there is an assumption that they are safely parenting their children, until or if we ever learn differently. Then they, like anybody else, would be reported to OCS and we would respond accordingly.

Hundreds of families adopt every year in Alaska and with the exception of a very small number, do so with good hearts. Some families, not all, receive continued subsidies from the state. These subsidies are available in cases where children have special needs that require ongoing care and treatment, above and beyond what normal insurance might support.

Whether the agency appropriately handled this case or not, one thing is certain -- the system and the community must do everything possible to reduce the likelihood of it happening again. There are always lessons to be learned when tragedies occur. What lessons are to be learned from this case is still unclear. However, I am ready and willing to accept all the criticism in the world if it will help make the system better for children. But, I also need you to be willing to see when progress has been made and demonstrate your readiness to partner with us to continue to improve areas still deficient.

Preventing and responding to child abuse is not a job OCS can do alone. I need you, the community, to continue to stand with us, supporting and advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable Alaskans.

Christy Lawton is director of Alaska's Office of Children's Services. She lives in Fairbanks.