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Bolstering state child protection efforts should help kids who need it the most

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 1, 2017
  • Published June 30, 2017

When parents fail their children, which is what happened with the two recent cases investigated by the state ombudsman's office, the state has no business adding to the damage.

In September 2014, a woman with several illegal drugs in her system gave birth to a daughter who took her first breath addicted to meth and opioids.

The baby had to receive morphine and clonidine to ease her withdrawal symptoms. The father was not in the picture. The grandmother had a history of substance abuse.

The child is still in foster care because the state has been too slow in getting her placed with her great-grandfather in Arizona, an ombudsman report said.

In another case, a social worker conducting an unannounced visit in May 2016 caught a foster father sexually abusing an 8-year-old girl in his care.

The girl was in state custody because her mother abused drugs and her father had had little to do with the child. The father, who had faced a variety of problems in the past and lived Outside, said he wanted the girl to be with him. He encountered bureaucratic delays in clearing the paperwork from 2015 until he "began to disengage from the case" early this year, the ombudsman found.

Nothing can erase or make up for the parental incompetence at the root of these two cases, but the sluggardly response by the state shows the need to do more to respond and investigate complaints, meet regularly with parents and children, file the right paperwork promptly and get kids into loving and safe homes.

The reason for the slow response is easy to identify — the state does not have enough staff members to do the job. The number of kids in foster care has climbed by 50 percent in five years, but the number of caseworkers has not.

The excessive caseloads assigned to state social workers make it nearly impossible for them to devote the time necessary to respond to child neglect and meet the standards in state law.

The average caseload in the Wasilla office, which handles much of Southcentral Alaska excluding Anchorage, is 43 families, 3 1/2 times the national standard. Both of the cases investigated by the ombudsman were handled by the same newly hired social worker in the Wasilla office.

The difficulty of sorting out conflicting points of view and dealing with people in emotional situations requires more time than the state has been willing to provide to its workers. The turnover rate is about 35 percent and most workers stay on the job for about 18 months.

That's not long enough to understand the dynamics in cases where there is likely to be domestic violence, the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, unemployment and parents who are missing in action.

If you include the parents, stepparents, grandparents and others in the mix, the total number of individuals with an interest in cases assigned to one social worker could be 200 or more. That's a lot to work through.

One of the bright spots in the state budget for the fiscal year that began Saturday is that it will fund 31 new positions in the Office of Children's Services. This came about largely through the efforts of the Legislature's leading expert on child protective services, Anchorage Rep. Les Gara. His office identified surplus public assistance funds in a review of the health budget and proposed reallocating $3.3  million.

He said that without more workers on the job so that caseloads can be reduced to manageable levels, the system is guaranteed to shortchange kids. He's said it's like putting a baseball team on the field with five players instead of nine — errors are all but impossible to avoid.

It's not just money that is the problem, either. On a 23-17 vote, the House approved a bill on the last day of the regular session, HB 151, that calls for new training and workforce standards. The Senate will look at it next year.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

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.

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