Alaska's child protectors are overwhelmed, poorly managed, understaffed

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform suggested in a recent commentary that the Office of Children's Services here in Alaska may be using data gathered by the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research that is built on dubious and even fallacious theory and fact. The specific issue is how many families are subject to multiple investigations and potential removal of children from their families.

Wexler alludes to the overwhelming tasks before the caseworkers. He doesn't discuss the half of it.

I work in Bethel at OCS, and although I am a new worker as a "Protective Service I," I am 77 years old and worked here for a short time 16 years ago when the agency was called the Division of Family and Youth Services. OCS has a top-down culture that encourages its workers to spend at least 60 percent of our time doing documentation to meet federal guidelines. Workers are told to follow a document of over 900 pages referred to as "Policy." I was forced to read this document when I was hired, as were all the workers.

Some supervisors are extremely poorly trained to be handling all the minutiae expected of us. Further, caseworkers and supervisors are fearful they will be reprimanded for not meeting the needs of the federal government because the feds provide needed funding. I suspect that were OCS to be evaluated by new-wave thinkers on how to run an organization as big as this one, they would suggest that a major internal overhaul was needed -- and not just in meeting federal guidelines, but in the manner in which people are treated and the amount of paperwork needed to protect children.

Wexler goes on to suggest that decision making at OCS is based on subjectivity rather than evidence-based thinking. More to the point, knee-jerk reaction is the means by which workers are tasked to do their jobs. I have more than 40 cases, mostly unfinished by those who have resigned or possibly been fired from the agency, and they were left partially or completely undone. Admittedly, I am not doing well in completing other people's work, and for all I know "Policy" has something to say about workers writing such commentaries as this one, but one only need listen to the overwhelming grumbling behind managers' backs and watch as supervisors do telephone interviews for new workers on a regular basis. The turnover rate is significant, and for many in Bethel, additional salary due to cost of living expenses here is the only reason they remain.

Wexler states that OCS removes too many children from "loving homes" to foster homes, which comes back to haunt these children in the future. Most of the cases I have seen are related to alcohol consumption to a point where parents are not able to care for their kids. Almost all of the cases I have seen show that the parents were subject to alcohol-related abuse themselves by their parents and even perhaps grandparents. In other words, the acorn does not fall far from the tree.

The lead manager in Bethel, Fennisha Gardner, LCSW, a hard worker and exemplary tutor, suggests, if I understand her correctly, that alcohol is not responsible for poor parenting or in itself a safety threat to children. She challenges workers to prove otherwise. She admits that alcohol can increase the severity of abuse and/or neglect, but not that alcohol is responsible for poor parenting. She says she relies on evidence-based information to prove her point. Yet, she wants sober people to be found to care for the children while parents imbibe. So her argument is pure semantics. Children are subjected to horrors until someone not drinking can be located. I believe we have met the enemy, and in this instance, it is us.

Also, when there are 20 protective service reports (PSRs) on one family, something is wrong and I believe that we, as conscientious social workers and people from other human service backgrounds, need to look at this issue pretty much the way the court system looks at people who have many criminal charges and convictions. We are told that the four big issues are: physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental injury and neglect. It is implied that unless we see with our own eyes proof of one or more of these wrongs to children, the case should be unsubstantiated. Is this ethical? That is my question.

Lastly, I agree with Wexler on one point. Alaska needs to look at how other states deal with child abuse and neglect for sure, but I believe OCS needs to change its culture and needs to stop knee-jerk reacting and its use of fear and top-down management. I believe that workers need to be encouraged to think creatively and outside the box. Many workers will vehemently disagree with me publicly, but privately agree. I think we all understand why.

John Spitzberg is a retired special education teacher and master's-level social worker who has come out of retirement and took a job with the Office of Children's Services in Bethel, a job he is to leave at the end of January. He is a military veteran of 14 years, a writer and a father and husband. He wrote this commentary "with the hope that those in positions of power will consider what he has to say with an open mind."

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