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Alaska Office of Children's Services under scrutiny in wake of Bethel sex-abuse allegations

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News

Retention remains a crippling problem for the Alaska Office of Children's Services, which sees nearly one-third of its staff leave in any given year, according to a report from the panel that oversees the organization.

A report from the Alaska Citizen Review Panel spotlights that issue. Its recommendations – unchanged from 2012, though updated to reflect new data – are federally mandated through the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act as well as Alaska statutes.

The Office of Children's Services has faced scrutiny since reports of the alleged child sexual assault of a foster parent dating back to the 1970s were uncovered in the Bethel region. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has begun an expedited search of records involving the man in question, Peter Tony. On Wednesday, the department said it was still looking into the case and that some information – including a possible 1982 report – would be impossible to obtain.

Read more: OCS records under review in case of alleged Bethel sex abuse

Two recommendations offered by the panel on Wednesday focus on staff retention and look closer at issues in Alaska's western region office, based in the hub community of Bethel with field offices in the Yukon-Kuskokwim villages of St. Marys and Aniak.

According to the report, the staff turnover has average 34.6 percent a year since 2004. While it notes that the rate has fluctuated, it has held steady the last few years, well above OCS's target turnover rate of 20 percent.

"Such a high turnover rate is severely detrimental," the 2013 report notes. Last year's annual report came to the same conclusion, though it offered stronger language in the hope of triggering changes within the organization:

There is a window in a child's life to make an impact. There are children right now who are again out of that window without positive interaction from OCS because the office in their rural community is understaffed or unstaffed. We do not think it is too strong a statement to say lives are at stake. Even if no child dies from abuse, negative life-altering events are occurring. OCS needs to be fully staffed in rural areas to combat these issues.

Housing concerns

The issue of is nothing new to those in the department.

"It's a chronic problem in child welfare," said Travis Erickson, an OCS administrator who oversees the field offices throughout the state. "Even on a good day, the subject matter is difficult, the workload is difficult."

And the turnover issue isn't confined to Alaska. In 2003, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that turnover of child welfare staff was between 30 and 40 percent annually nationwide.

But Alaska poses unique challenges. The role of a social worker in rural Alaska is difficult, as new OCS staffers with very different cultural backgrounds arrive in close-knit rural communities. Tensions can be high.

Adjusting to life in those rural communities can be tough. Diwakar Vadapalli, chair of the review panel and an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said a 2011 OCS staff survey found that housing was one of the biggest issues in retaining rural Alaska workers.

He noted it was an issue that social-service providers across the state encounter.

"They recognized it as a problem, but it's beyond what they can do in terms of providing housing," he said from Anchorage Tuesday. "It's a budget issue is what we keep hearing."

Vadapalli said the issue had been brought before legislative committees, which prompted discussion but no additional funding.

Erickson said the organization has "elevated" talks to address the issue, noting that OCS does not provide housing for workers in rural Alaska.

"Housing ... is a serious issue. It's not a solution that gets addressed overnight," Erickson said. "All of those things are difficult to tackle."

Other efforts

The Citizens Review Panel report did note other steps OCS had taken to improve retention, including a recruitment video that offers a frank depiction of rural Alaska working conditions. Sensitive issues such as suicide are dealt with in the eight-minute video.

Erickson said other changes in the office, such as creating a single job class, may allow more workers to consider longer careers with the organization.

For example, Erickson said social workers were paid more and had greater career opportunities than a children's services specialist. Consequently, the children's services specialist – with a similar job and workload – has few options for advancement. Erickson said it affected some worker's decision to stay or go.

"It brought a different level to the playing field," he said.

Erickson also said the office has created a staff advisory board in direct contact with field workers to give them a chance to offer feedback directly to their supervisors.

That board has been well received, and has already made some changes seen as critical to retaining working – including procedures on how field workers can protect themselves while on assignment.

They're small steps, but Erickson is optimistic. He said a preliminary report shows that over the last nine months, OCS turnover was at 23 percent. Not great, he noted, but better than the 30 or 40 percent it has been in the past.

"This is an ongoing struggle," Erickson said. "Every day we are having conversations, each day we are trying something new (to help retain workers)."

Western region needs full staff

Another recommendation is to make sure the OCS western region gets the same administrative support as other region. The panel noted in its report that "we heard from staff that they feel 'like the ugly step-sister,'" of other OCS offices.

Erickson said it would be impossible to staff Bethel like the much-bigger Anchorage office, but OCS is working to address the needs of the workers and may bring in specialists from other parts of the state to help.

Vadapalli with the Citizen Review Panel said morale was up in the office the last time the panel visited Bethel in December. Erickson noted in that in the last year and a half the office has added more administrative positions.

"We know OCS has been investigating creative solutions such as joining needed functions into one job so there is enough work to justify the position," the report notes. "However, this issue needs to be resolved without another year passing."

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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