JUNEAU -- An agency with one of the most difficult jobs in state government -- protecting children from abuse and neglect -- is investigating more reports of Alaska children in trouble and the depth of the family turmoil is becoming more severe, a state budget panel was told Thursday.
Christy Lawton, director of the state Office of Children's Services, says her agency is seeking fewer state dollars in the coming budget year despite the pressures. The Department of Health and Social Services, which includes OCS, is struggling with rising state Medicaid costs and other divisions are cutting back to help cover that, she said.
Overall, the OCS budget will grow by more than $2 million to $142 million with a boost in federal dollars, she told the Senate finance subcommittee on health and social services. The federal money helps the state cover growing foster care costs and subsidies for adoptive parents, Lawton said.
"The volume is significant and we're seeing those reports go up," Lawton said. "The severity of the abuse seems to be getting unfortunately worse and not better in many parts of the state."
In particular the number of new reports of abuse or neglect -- what OCS now calls "protective services reports" -- that meet the criteria for investigation is growing, she said.
Her office later provided statistics that showed 6,856 investigations in the twelve months that ended June 30 compared to 6,156 the year before. Since 2006, the number topped 6,400 only once before last budget year, the statistics show.
Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat who used to work as a court-appointed guardian ad litem for children, asked why the problem was increasing.
There may be more awareness, resulting in more reporting of abuse and neglect, Lawton said. But deep-rooted problems stemming from alcohol and drug abuse also are factors, she said.
Lawton offered a bright note. Turnover in her agency has dropped from about 34 percent of frontline workers and supervisors to about 26 percent.
That may not be sustained. A study last year assessing classification of OCS workers resulted in about 200 getting significant pay increases, a good morale boost, she said.
The budget panel also looked at a 2012 work load study by a consultant that recommended 54 additional positions: 41 support staff and 13 licensing specialists. Many of those support workers would supervise visits between parents and children and transport children, freeing up case workers for field work, Lawton said.
OCS is not requesting any of those positions, she said.
The agency has 498 positions, counting three shifted over from the Division of Juvenile Justice, she said.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 952-3965.
By LISA DEMER