Repeat child maltreatment in Alaska: What do the numbers mean?

Children who are abused or neglected time after time often have permanent disabilities and sometimes die. Both federal and state figures show high rates of repeat abuse in Alaska -- and a recent study I did with colleagues at the Institute of Social and Economic Research suggests that the rates may be even higher than reported.

During a presentation to the House Finance Subcommittee on Feb. 1, the director of Alaska's Office of Children's Services presented alarmingly higher numbers of repeat maltreatment than those released by the federal Children's Bureau for Alaska. The bureau, until 2014, defined repeat maltreatment as the percentage of children with at least two substantiated (confirmed) reports of maltreatment in a six-month period. That was changed to a 12-month period in 2015. OCS used the bureau's definition, and retrospectively applied the new definition to past years.

One issue in measuring repeated maltreatment is the length of time to use. Using a six-month window, the bureau reports 12.9 percent of the children substantiated by OCS were substantiated again within six months in 2013. That rose to 13.9 percent in 2014, a worsening situation. OCS' numbers show 17.9 percent in 2013 and 17.4 percent in 2014, an improving situation. It makes sense that there will be more children identified as having been repeatedly abused if the period being examined is 12 months rather than six months. But, it is well known that children are often abused over a period of years, not just in periods of just six or 12 months.

Another issue is, when do we say a child is maltreated? According to the bureau's definition, substantiation is the marker. OCS receives thousands of allegations of maltreatment each year. For an allegation to be substantiated, there must of course be strong supporting evidence. A very small percentage of all reports that OCS receives get substantiated. In 2013, for instance, about 12 percent of all reports of maltreatment were substantiated. In her presentation, OCS' director acknowledged that cases that come to OCS' attention are often the most severe situations. There are thousands of other situations that don't rise up to be substantiated.

But, does assessing repeat maltreatment by looking only at substantiated cases over relatively short periods of time -- as both the bureau and OCS do -- adequately measure the number of children in Alaska being abused time after time?

In our study, we examined repeat abuse of children in Alaska over a period of nine years, and we included all reports of repeat abuse OCS investigated, including those it substantiated and those it didn't.

What did we find? In the nine-year period from 2005 to 2013, 40 percent of all children who were subjects of OCS investigations were repeatedly maltreated -- and those children accounted for 70 percent of all investigations OCS conducted during that period. These figures are dramatically more than what the federal and state figures show.

Does this mean Alaska is faring worse than we thought? Not necessarily. The bureau uses repeat maltreatment as a tool to assess the performance of OCS across years. We focused our attention beyond OCS, on understanding the prevalence of repeat maltreatment in Alaska. Our findings are preliminary, and there is much we still don't know -- but they indicate that it is necessary to look more broadly. Better understanding of the frequency and causes of repeated maltreatment will provide all of us with better chances of preventing it.

Public sentiment about how to reduce or prevent abuse, and federal policies on this issue, have swung between two extremes over the last several decades: Is it better for abused children if we try to keep them with their families -- and monitor their safety -- or is it better to take abused children out of their homes?

Some of those who've read -- or only heard about -- our study think that by showing a high rate of repeat abuse we were somehow advocating for removing children from their homes. We did not examine the complex, difficult question of what is best for abused children. What we did was look beyond assessing OCS' performance, and truly understand the challenge of repeat maltreatment. To find effective ways of reducing or preventing it, Alaskans must have accurate measures of its prevalence.

Diwakar Vadapalli is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage's ISER. He was one of two co-authors of the report discussed above, titled "Repeat Maltreatment in Alaska: Assessment and Exploration of Alternative measures."

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Diwakar Vadapalli

Diwakar Vadapalli is an assistant professor of public policy at UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research. He was one of two co-authors of the report discussed above, titled "Repeat Maltreatment in Alaska: Assessment and Exploration of Alternative Measures."