Social workers can't protect Alaska kids on shoestring budgets

I remember the first night I spent as the only social worker on the North Slope. It was the mid-eighties. Money and drugs were slamming our villages pretty badly.  Ahead of me would be nights when I never got to bed because of the number of child endangerment calls I had to respond to. But that night, all I could do was lay awake and wonder how I was going to keep track of all the kids already in foster homes or group homes. How was I ever going to find the time to work with the families to try to reunite them? I quickly found out how impossible it truly is to rebuild a house while it's still on fire.

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson has expressed concern that social workers in Alaska are legally kidnapping children from their homes.  I can only say from experience that the last thing I ever imagined doing was kidnapping kids from safe homes. Removing a child from a home is so involved with legal paperwork, administrative paperwork, federal compliance paperwork – well, you get the idea – that no one voluntarily takes it on.

[Lawmaker says Alaska child welfare agency practices 'legal kidnapping,' but top official disputes charge]

When you walk into situations in homes where domestic violence, sexual or substance abuse or any combination thereof are present, you have precious little time to make a snap decision. Leave the child there and risk the child being injured? Take the child and entangle the family in the bureaucracy that is the Office of Children's Services?  No social worker wants to be the one cited in the headlines when a child is injured or killed and paperwork shows that social services was involved with the family but never removed the child. And no social worker wants to break up a healthy family, or even a family with a moderate chance of healing.

The reason so many social workers in this state are young and raw is because it's not the career path most people take after their first experience with it. The hours are long, the pay is not anywhere near the grief that comes with the job and, if you are the social worker in a village, your social life can be extremely limited. Social workers in Alaska carry caseloads three times the nationally recommended average. They have few to no resources in Bush Alaska to turn to and, in urban Alaska, services are so overwhelmed the waiting list can stretch out for years.

Yet for all the complaints about social services, I don't see any real will on the part of the Alaska Legislature to do anything about it. And that's because what the system needs to function properly – more people, more available services from in-patient treatment to family counseling to one-on-one with abused children – all cost money.

No one, aside from Les Gara, ever seems to understand  just how important it is for these services to be available to families at the earliest possible moment of intervention. It is the only way to start families healing and stop the flow of children out of their homes and into foster care. If we don't provide social workers the tools to truly address a problem that at times seems insurmountable, then social services will continue to pull large numbers of children out of unsafe situations because they simply don't have the resources to monitor the child's safety in the home or offer immediate services to the family.


[Dramatic spike in foster children overwhelming state agencies]

If Rep. Wilson is truly concerned about the situation at OCS, I would hope that she'll head back to Juneau this year determined to fight for the funding needed to hire enough social workers and open enough programs to meet the needs of Alaska's troubled families.  Of course, given the state's current financial situation, that's probably less than realistic. Which is sad because there was a time when the state did have the money to make a difference with these families. But even then it seemed that all people wanted to do was complain about OCS without providing the funds to make any real difference.

So yes, maybe social workers do remove children in situations where the call could go either way. But they've seen the headlines in the paper and don't want to be the next social worker explaining why they left a child in a home where the child continued to be abused or, even worse, killed. Can you really blame them?

Elise Patkotak's book "Coming Into the City" is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.


Elise Patkotak

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska columnist and author. Her book "Coming Into the City" is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.