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Substantiated child abuse claims face scrutiny in Alaska, regardless of severity

Suzanna Caldwell

Last month, a Bethel man admitted to sexually abusing several children who were left in his care as both a licensed foster parent and unlicensed day care provider.

A review of foster care file of Peter and Marilyn Tony revealed that multiple allegations of sexual abuse had been levied against Peter during his time as foster parent. Tony, 69, has since been charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse of minor in two separate cases.

But whether any lessons can be learned by what happened in Bethel over the 14-year span when the couple was licensed -- from 1984 to 1998 -- remains to be seen.

“(The office of children's services) certainly has been considering that question closely,” said Christy Lawton, director for the last two years of the office that oversees Alaska foster care program said last week. “But the difficulty in really coming to strong conclusions is in the great disparity in how the practice (of foster care licensing) was done then and now.”

Lawton said much has changed about how the agency handles foster-care files since the Tonys lost their license in 1998.

Up-to-date case management systems have been put in place. Cases are documented electronically and more uniformly across the state. Working in partnership with law enforcement -- instead of separately -- is routine, and state policies have evolved to help guard against issues the agency encountered in the 1980s and early '90s.

“All of those things dramatically changed,” Lawton said. “It's not an unwillingness (for the office) to identify problems … I think the practice speaks for itself; we found better ways to do it, to keep children safe, and that's been evolution the entire country has gone through, not just Alaska.”

Law enforcement now works directly with OCS to investigate child abuse cases together instead of separately, Lawton said. Child Advocacy Centers, which use a multidisciplinary approach to investigate child-abuse claims, came about in the early 1990s across the country. Alaska's first center  -- called Alaska CARES -- opened in Anchorage in 1996.

Lawton said the office is still reviewing “every page” of the files of individual children to “fill in the gaps that we have and people want answers to.”

All claims investigated

According to OCS, there are 1,351 foster homes in the state. Lawton noted that for Fiscal Year 2012 there were 2,700 children in foster care in the state. That same year, there were only 25 cases of substantiated abuse or neglect.

An Alaska Dispatch review of the Tonys' foster-care file revealed five allegations of abuse against Peter Tony in his 13 years as a foster parent in Bethel. Of those five claims, only one in 1998 was found to be substantiated by OCS. That claim led to the revocation of the Tonys' foster care license. Although substantiated by the state agency, Bethel Police were unsuccessful in getting a disclosure from the victim when the matter was brought to them. No charges were filed in the case until 2013.

The four other claims were found to be unsubstantiated for various reasons, including the “medical condition and psychiatric treatment” of one child.

Would the claims, though unsubstantiated, have raised concerns among social workers?

“Absolutely,” Lawton said.

Still unclear is whether or not case workers in Bethel knew about the prior abuse allegations. Lawton, who joined the agency in 1998 as a social worker, said it's her understanding that records in the 1980s were not tracked the way they are today.

PROBER, a data “warehouse” used by case workers, wasn't fully implemented until the late ‘80s. Even then, the systems were not linked statewide.

While data could have been accessed, Lawton said it was limited, and would instead trigger a social worker to search for a hard copy record of the allegation.

Still, workers could have searched under the name of either the parent, child or perpetrator.

“The next time something came in on the child or that person, we would be able to connect those dots,” Lawton said.

“It was certainly less than efficient,” she said. “It potentially had lots of ways that gaps and things could be missed. It's just not the sophistication that there is today.”

Today the system is more clear cut. All allegations of abuse are recorded, regardless of the level of severity.  

For example, instances of “physical punishment,” like a foster parent slapping the head of a child are documented and investigated in the same manner as a more-serious accusation like physical or sexual abuse. It’s unlikely minor instances would lead to a license termination, though they would be noted in the foster file.

False reports not uncommon

There is no indication in the Tony foster-care files that any of the claims were made maliciously, though according to those working in foster care, those claims are not uncommon.

Lawton said false reports are neither an extraordinary phenomenon nor pervasive. While it's illegal to make a false report in Alaska, she said it's often “not crystal clear” enough for prosecutors to press charges.

Aileen McInnis, executive director of the Alaska Center for Resource Families, a nonprofit charged with coordinating training and support for foster-care parents, said she warns parents that while they might be targeted with false claims of abuse, those allegations are still taken seriously by the agency.

“We don't assume -- because we like foster homes and think they're great and have done great things for kids -- that just because a child is making a complaint that it's untrue,” McInnis said. “Those complaints are taken very seriously.”

The malicious complaints can come through children, or through biological parents or relatives dealing with already emotional and tumultuous situations.

McInnis said dealing with the abuse claims can often be tiring for foster parents, especially ones caught in custody battles or caring for children who are seeking “revenge” against a foster parent. She noted that foster parents often live in “glass homes” and face intense personal scrutiny. While that can be challenging for some, it's a necessary part of the process.

“The most important thing is child safety,” she said. “That's the bottom line. But it can be really difficult for families and that's hard for the kids that need them.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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