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Report: State failings in 2 child-protection cases are a symptom of deeper problems

A new report from Alaska's government watchdog agency paints a picture of a state child protective services system stretched beyond its capacity, with disturbing consequences for children and their families.

The report, released last week by the Alaska Office of the Ombudsman, focuses on a tiny sample of the Office of Children's Services' staggering caseload. It details an extensive investigation into two separate complaints against one employee, a front-line caseworker in the Wasilla office, which has the highest caseload per worker in the state.

In Wasilla, protective workers juggle an average of 43 cases at a time, according to OCS. Federal standards recommend a maximum of 12.

In one case documented, an 8-year-old girl in Wasilla was sexually abused in foster care as her father's attempts to gain custody of her went ignored by the caseworker.

The girl had been taken into state custody because of her mother's drug addiction and neglect. In July 2015, she was placed in a foster home in Wasilla with an older man and his wife.

Her biological father had been in and out of her life and was living out-of-state. But he wanted to start the process of getting his daughter out of a foster home and with him.

He called her caseworker at the Office of Children's Services again and again, trying to move forward with paperwork that would allow him to be considered as a caregiver. He also shared worries that his daughter was not receiving good care in the foster home. In all, his calls totaled 130. The report said his efforts were delayed again and again, or ignored by the caseworker.

Meanwhile, the girl was showing troubling signs that something was not right in the Wasilla foster home where she had been sent by the state.

Over a period of months, teachers and other professionals who worked with her reported that she came to school dirty and unkempt, wearing the same clothes for weeks at a time, the report said. She was missing therapist appointments and her foster father seemed to have a disturbingly negative view of her.

The teachers, counselors and a court-appointed child advocate raised alarms about what they saw as classic signs the girl was being abused.

When the girl's OCS caseworker visited the foster home early one morning at the end of May 2016, she allegedly found the girl in her foster father's bed.

The girl, now 9, told investigators that he had repeatedly raped her, according to court filings. The former foster father, 68-year-old Rand Tickner, now faces nine felony charges of first-degree sexual abuse of a minor.

Tickner was a licensed foster parent between 2014 and 2016, according to OCS. Four foster children total lived with him during that time.

"There are no other investigations for sexual abuse in this home, nor are we aware of any additional charges," OCS deputy director Tracy Spartz-Campbell wrote in an email.

Tickner is listed as an inmate at Goose Creek Correctional Center as he awaits trial. The girl is still in foster care, in a different home.

Former ombudsman Linda Lord-Jenkins wrote that the failings described are symptomatic of a much bigger, more troubling problem: This is what happens when an agency "demands so much of its staff but gives them so few resources," she wrote.

Lord-Jenkins retired on June 24, two days after the report was released. She had served in the state ombudsman's office since 1989.

The Alaska ombudsman investigates citizen complaints about state agencies or employees. It was created by the state Legislature in 1975. It can find complaints justified or unjustified, and make recommendations of change to state agencies.

More cases

OCS itself agrees that it is struggling against a rising tide of child abuse and neglect cases.

In the past five years, the number of OCS cases statewide has increased by 50 percent, agency director Christy Lawton wrote in a response to the ombudsman's findings. But the number of caseworkers responsible for taking children believed to be unsafe into state custody and working to reunify them with their families or, failing that, find them a permanent home, has not.

In the case of the girl whose foster father is now charged with sexual abuse, OCS agency director Christy Lawton wrote in a response that the agency "does not agree that there were total failures in this case management or supervision" in the case but did recognize that it "may not have been optimal."

"We believe workload is the primary driver behind the concerns you noted," Lawton wrote.

The increase in child protective cases is being driven in part by the opioid epidemic and addicted parents unable to safely care for their children, said OCS deputy director Tracy Spartz-Campbell.

"The families where there's substance abuse have risen remarkably," she said.

Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who spent time in foster care himself as a child and has long made reforming the state's child protective system a central priority, said blaming individual caseworkers instead of an underfunded, overtaxed system is unfair.

"We give them a few weeks of training and launch them in with 30 cases. What the hell are we doing?" Gara said. "Then we can't wait for a case to blame somebody when things go wrong."

Both of the cases investigated by the ombudsman came from complaints from out-of-state relatives who wanted a child in custody to live with them.

In the other case, a baby born to a drug-addicted mother was taken into state custody at birth, according to the report. The biological mother told OCS that she wanted her great-grandfather, who lived out of state, to be considered to take the child. State law and administrative code require OCS to try first to place children taken into state custody with relatives.

Despite being "reminded or notified 27 times that the great-grandfather was available" to take the baby, the caseworker didn't start the complicated and time-consuming paperwork to allow the out-of-state great-grandfather's home to be considered for more than two years, the ombudsman found.  Meanwhile, the baby remained with a foster family she was not related to, and has now been with them for almost three years.

Heavy caseloads

The worker at the center of the complaints had been hired only 10 weeks before she got the cases in question. At one point during the investigation, her caseload had "exceeded 50 cases," the report found.

New OCS caseworkers regularly get buried in cases just weeks after they've been hired, after minimal training, said Gara, who is the sponsor of a bill that would increase training and limit caseloads for workers.

New hires attend a three-week training. A 2016 survey of OCS workers conducted by UAA found that most workers "did not feel that this training session prepared them adequately for the challenges of the job."

The agency is struggling to hire and retain qualified caseworkers, Spartz-Campbell said.

The 2016 survey found that 60 percent of OCS front-line workers had been at the agency for less than three years. The same report wrote that anecdotally, front-line workers only stay on the job for "about a year."

Some help is on the way. In the 2018 fiscal year budget, OCS received an additional $3.29 million for front-line workers, Spartz-Campbell said. That translates to an additional 31 positions or so.

"I think it will certainly help," she said.

The agency wants to start a mentoring program, where new recruits are paired with experienced caseworkers. They hope that will help decrease a punishing turnover rate.

Spartz-Campbell put the overall turnover rate for caseworkers at about 34 percent within the first year.

There's even a recruiting video called "Realistic Job Profile" that shows in stark terms the reality of the work.

In the video, workers talk about both the satisfaction they get from the job and their heartbreak at dealing with children who've suffered broken bones at the hands of their parents or have been left alone in a house for days. Images of abused children with black eyes and filthy houses even flash on the screen quickly.

OCS needs prospective workers to know what they're getting into because the job is so hard, said Spartz-Campbell.

"When you go into some of these homes, what you see is really disturbing," she said. "In order to take this job, you have to be aware of what you're walking into. There is this really tough element. If it is not for you, we prefer you do not apply."

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