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Amid horrors of abuse, hope for Alaska’s children

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A baby starved to death by her parents. Siblings imprisoned and treated like animals by an adoptive mother. An 8-year-old taken from a drug-addicted mother and placed with a foster parent who raped her.

The stomach-turning horrors in recent headlines—some reflecting still-unproven charges—carry the whiff of evil. They make us want to give up, because it seems impossible for such depravity to be cured.

On the other hand, good Alaskans are trying to help neglected children every day. Most of those kids grow up to become good people as well, some helping other neglected children. Grandparents step up too, when their addicted children go astray.

As Alaska strains under the human burden of an unprecedented drug crisis, hopelessness is not an option. Those of us who can intervene personally must do so. The rest of us are obliged to support those on the front lines.

Not all the news is bad.

Alaska's Office of Children's Services admitted being overwhelmed by cases when the opioid crisis compounded Alaska's chronic alcohol abuse crisis. The Legislature responded with money for more case workers. They are being hired and trained.

Children in Alaska Native communities faced greater need and a long-documented failure of state officials to adequately coordinate with village social workers. Gov. Bill Walker responded with a compact to allow tribes to handle cases directly.

The necessary secrecy and predictable defensiveness of OCS made it difficult to determine if the agency was really doing its job. Now a number of groups inside and outside government are routinely investigating, overseeing and advocating, creating the transparency for improvement.

These steps only move toward solutions. But they show democracy can work. We will never approach perfection, but research, investment and thoughtful public policy can improve thousands of children's lives.

The experts I talked to agreed that the keystone solution is putting enough well-trained workers on the front line. Outside investigations repeatedly showed that dumping extreme caseloads on inadequately trained and supported social workers led to horrendous results.

A national guideline suggests a social worker should have no more than 12 cases. The worker who was responsible for that 8-year-old who was raped had been on the job 10 weeks and had more than 50 cases, according to an Alaska Ombudsman report.

In March, the Anchorage office of OCS averaged 30 cases per worker and Mat-Su 43. Each case is a family. In July, the average Wasilla worker handled 67 children, 52 mothers and 51 fathers, who all needed individual contacts–an impossibility, said Ombudsman Kate Burkhart.

Social workers with too many cases cannot follow up on complaints, they fail to return phone calls, they cannot recruit or support foster parents, and they miss monthly visits.

And they burn out. Turnover statewide is close to 40 percent and as high as 50 percent in some offices, meaning half the staff quits annually, said OCS Director Christy Lawton.

Inexperienced front line social workers start at $46,330 a year and receive a few weeks of training in addition to their required bachelor's degree. In contrast, a state trooper recruit with a bachelor's starts at $65,268 a year.

Both jobs are hard, but we honor troopers as our protectors. Social workers are vilified.

Last year Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, accused OCS workers of kidnapping and fraud, asking a grand jury to investigate. The grand jury referred the complaint to the ombudsman, who last month found no evidence of kidnapping and the like, but cited systemic and resource problems involving many agencies, including the Legislature itself.

This year the Legislature added $3.7 million to the OCS budget to hire another 31 workers, doubling the staff at Mat-Su, and added two more weeks of training. The agency costs $156 million annually.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, the Legislature's most ardent advocate of child protection, also got a bill through the state House to set a lower case load standard and add more training. It is pending in the Senate.

But just adding workers isn't a solution. Reports by the ombudsman, a citizens review panel and other agencies show OCS has internal processes that don't work, it needs to communicate better, and should build new systems of data collection and evaluation to check its work, among other findings.

Those issues are complex. The point is, when officials follow up and ask for the resources they need, the system can improve.

The tribal compact is the biggest change to come out of years of reviews and recommendations.

Alaska Native children make up 57 percent of children in the state's custody, but only 27 percent of Alaska's children are Native. A social worker told me 20 children lived in the village he served and 13 were in and out of the system.

Coordinating tribal, state and federal services will help, but the severity of this problem points to a deeper need.

More than 1,400 Alaska children were protectively removed from their homes last year. What cultural crisis is causing so many parents to put substance abuse above their children?

We all have a part in that question. Until there is an answer, we also must share in caring for the children.

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(at)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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