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Governor should 'Choose Respect' and stop shelving Alaska child abuse prevention study

Les Gara
OPINION: It's time to act. The governor's new budget should implement the conclusions of a 2012 study seeking much-needed improvements in the Office of Children's Services, a report that his administration has apparently ignored. Aaron Jansen illustration

In 2011 the state conceded that its protection system to discover child abuse and neglect, and lead foster youth to greater success, was in need of improvement. It came up with a cost-effective request: What if they filled the massive staffing gaps at the Office of Children's Services (OCS), which investigates these cases, with lower-cost support staff rather than Masters-level social workers? That would free social workers to do their fieldwork, and let lower-cost employees do their paper and administrative work.

The governor needs to govern and find efficiencies, rather than excuses to ignore our child protection system or his own state-commissioned study on how to fix that problem. It's no excuse, even in lean times, to continue this tragedy just because it takes hard work to cut government waste instead. We can't avoid the hard work, and "choose disrespect," by continuing Alaska's terrible statistics on child and sexual abuse, and foster youth failure, which should be replaced with greater success and dignity for those we are charged with protecting.

The governor, in my opinion, gave away billions in Alaska's share for our oil in his oil tax bill. Whether you agree with that law or not, all concede it will lead to massive deficits or cuts over the next decade. Those who pushed for a better approach to reform say deficit spending, and the erosion of our $17 billion in savings, won't end until that law is replaced with one that doesn't let Exxon, Conoco and BP take their billions in tax breaks, and spend them outside Alaska -- something the 2013 law expressly allows to Alaska's detriment.

The 2012 study concluded the obvious. It still hasn't been implemented by the governor. Shelving a study aimed at preventing child abuse isn't what a "choose respect" governor should do.

The state agency reviewing the study concluded in 2012 as follows: "Since (the last 2006 state-commissioned study) it has become increasingly clear to staff and leadership that several job classes have grown very little or at all to be able to meet the needs and as a result it has caused greater inefficiencies in staff time, service delivery and our ability to ultimately ensure the safety, permanency and well being of our families." See Page 1 of the OCS Executive Summary and report here.

What does that mean in plain language? Currently, new social workers charged with investigating abuse and protecting foster youth burn out on average eighteen months after starting work, and the division has a roughly thirty percent annual turnover rate. At the University of Alaska, professors warn new graduates that taking jobs at OCS brings a great, and well-documented, risk of burnout. With burnout, overwork, and the inability to spend time in the field investigating cases, we risk alienating foster families who don't get their calls returned, risk failing to meet the educational and mental health needs of foster youth who bounce between schools and often more than a dozen foster homes, and risk failing to notice child abuse -- as multiple OCS visits to a Bethel home in a recent case revealed.

Kids aren't ping pong balls. Investigating abuse claims takes time. A staff with chronic burnout, turnover, and excess caseloads just makes that problem continue. It jeopardizes continuing a statistic showing roughly 40 percent of foster youth in Alaska end up homeless at some point in their lives.

Alaska will benefit, fiscally and from a humanitarian standpoint, if more foster youth graduate from high school (even less likely when we have too few foster families), find abuse when it occurs, and send more foster youth to college and vocational training, rather than place them in jail, state-paid prosecution, homeless shelters, and on state-paid welfare.

To make things worse at OCS, since the study was commissioned the number of foster youth has jumped from roughly 1,700 to 2,000, making burnout and staff turnover even more likely.

That's why Rep. Geran Tarr and I wrote to the governor asking that he implement his own report and his agency's own conclusions in his budget, which will be released later this week. It calls for roughly 40 support staff statewide (OCS claims the 50+ number of staff in its report was the result of a mathematical error).

I want youth to have the same chance to succeed that I had as a foster youth. But OCS is an overburdened, hampered agency that is being asked to protect children without the needed staff to do it.

As Rep. Tarr said recently, “It’s been said that a society can be judged by the way it treats its children, and by that standard Alaska can do much better. Giving case workers these resources now, can go a long way to protecting Alaska’s children."

Former child protection worker and retired attorney who worked on OCS cases, Jim Parker, notes:

"When you have inadequate foster care staff, you risk missing child abuse cases, you risk fostering failure rather than success for foster children, and you alienate needed foster parents because there isn't staff to timely review foster parent applications, and help foster parents with a very difficult job."

While the report has languished, OCS has become even more overburdened.

It's time to act. Sticking your head in the sand, or claiming success in the face of child abuse and failure, isn't leadership.

Read the report commissioned by the Parnell administration

Read the letter from Reps. Gara and Tarr

Rep. Les Gara is an Anchorage Democratic legislator, a former foster youth, and had the support to graduate college and law school with honors.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.