Federal statistics show Alaska has the nation's highest rate of repeat child abuse or neglect -- a grim barometer that often precedes the death or serious injury of a child.
But a new study released Tuesday by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage contends the state's rate of child maltreatment doesn't even reflect the true extent of the problem here. And the state's youngest children are the most vulnerable, according to the 24-page study by ISER researcher Jessica Passini and assistant public policy professor Diwakar Vadapalli.
Maltreatment is defined as abuse or neglect; the latter makes up about three-quarters of the maltreatment reports received by the state Office of Children's Services. Many reports of maltreatment aren't investigated at all in Alaska -- as in many states -- and only a small share of those investigated are substantiated, the study found.
Alaska's repeat maltreatment statistics reported by the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services measure the percentage of children involved in at least two confirmed reports of abuse or neglect within a span of six months. The study authors point out repeated maltreatment can take place over years, and that short window may serve as a good indicator of child protective performance, but ignores chronic maltreatment.
The researchers call recurring abuse and neglect "a reminder of our collective failure" as a society.
"Most fatalities and serious injuries to children due to maltreatment are preceded by multiple reported instances of maltreatment," they wrote. "Repeated maltreatment is extremely damaging to the child, is an established indicator of worse conditions, and is very demoralizing to everyone who tried to help prevent it from happening."
The study resulted from a series of discussions last year with OCS officials concerned about the state's high rate of repeat child mistreatment, Vadapalli said Tuesday.
An OCS spokeswoman said no one from that agency was available for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Vadapalli said looking at a longer time period provides a clearer picture of children's suffering. Over a nine-year period, 30 percent of the children with substantiated abuse or neglect returned to the system with another substantiated report of maltreatment, he said by phone Tuesday afternoon.
The researchers contend the actual maltreatment numbers are higher: 4 of 10 children born in or after 2005 and investigated as potential victims of maltreatment in Alaska were repeatedly maltreated in the period between 2005 and 2013.
That's far worse than the numbers that already rank Alaska as the worst state in the country for repeat abuse or neglect of children.
As of 2013, nearly 13 percent of children investigated by the OCS were reported as suffering repeat abuse or neglect, according to the study. The national rate was less than 5.5 percent.
"As bleak as the numbers above are, we contend that these numbers are limited by the Children's Bureau definition of the indicator, and neither reflect the true extent of repeat maltreatment in Alaska nor provide adequate help in understanding the nature or severity of the challenge," the researchers wrote.
That same year, in Alaska, 42 percent of the reports in an average month were not investigated, the study found. Only 12 percent were substantiated.
Even investigations that didn't confirm neglect or abuse may help measure the prevalence of repeat maltreatment, since OCS does not investigate reports of suspected abuse unless it determines there is adequate basis for investigation, the authors found. They also pointed out that other research shows child protection agencies often get many reports of abuse or neglect before they substantiate it.
The ISER study, funded by the University of Alaska Foundation, Alaska Children's Trust and First National Bank Alaska, looked at repeat maltreatment among Alaska children between 2005 and 2013 using case-level data from the federally sponsored National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. The researchers examined how the maltreatment rate differs for substantiated abuse versus all investigated reports. They also looked at the "workload burden" on OCS staff performing intake and investigation.
They found that reducing repeat maltreatment would protect children and also reduce the OCS caseload. Out of about 36,000 investigations into maltreatment involving more than 19,300 children in that eight-year period, 68 percent were multiple investigations of the same children.
They also found the majority of substantiated abuse or neglect is first reported when the child is very young: 42 percent of the roughly 2,500 children with substantiated maltreatment between 2005 and 2013 were under 1 year old.
More than 92 percent of the children were identified as potential victims in an investigation for the first time before they were 5 years of age, according to the ISER data.
The study did not explore whether the maltreatment occurred among children in state custody or the role that substance abuse or mental illness played.
It recommends exploring high turnover of case workers at OCS and high rates of repeat maltreatment, saying "it will be instructive to know if frequent changes in social workers serving a child or family leads to repeated investigations among children in care."
Researcher Vadapalli contends more than one agency is needed to prevent maltreatment.
"We need a community-wide effort … so once you know that one kid was maltreated, it should attract more attention to make sure they don't go through that again."