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July 31, 2014

Parnell Should Choose Support for Youth

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In 2011 the state conceded that its protection system to discover child abuse and neglect, and lead foster youth to greater success, was in need of improvement. It came up with a cost-effective request: What if they filled the massive staffing gaps at the Office of Children’s Services (OCS), which investigates these cases, with lower-cost support staff rather than Masters-level social workers? That would free social workers to do their fieldwork, and let lower-cost employees do their paper and administrative work.

The governor needs to govern and find efficiencies, rather than excuses to ignore our child protection system or his own state-commissioned study on how to fix that problem. It’s no excuse, even in lean times, to continue this tragedy just because it takes hard work to cut government waste instead. We can’t avoid the hard work, and “choose disrespect,” by continuing Alaska’s terrible statistics on child and sexual abuse, and foster youth failure, which should be replaced with greater success and dignity for those we are charged with protecting.

The governor, in my opinion, gave away billions in Alaska’s share for our oil in his oil tax bill. Whether you agree with that law or not, all concede it will lead to massive deficits or cuts over the next decade. Those who pushed for a better approach to reform say deficit spending, and the erosion of our $17 billion in savings, won’t end until that law is replaced with one that doesn’t let Exxon, Conoco and BP take their billions in tax breaks, and spend them outside Alaska — something the 2013 law expressly allows to Alaska’s detriment.

The 2012 study concluded the obvious. It still hasn’t been implemented by the governor. Shelving a study aimed at preventing child abuse isn’t what a “choose respect” governor should do.

The state agency reviewing the study concluded in 2012 as follows: “Since (the last 2006 state-commissioned study) it has become increasingly clear to staff and leadership that several job classes have grown very little or at all to be able to meet the needs and as a result it has caused greater inefficiencies in staff time, service delivery and our ability to ultimately ensure the safety, permanency and well being of our families.” See Page 1 of the OCS Executive Summary and report.

What does that mean in plain language? Currently, new social workers charged with investigating abuse and protecting foster youth burn out on average eighteen months after starting work, and the division has a roughly thirty percent annual turnover rate. At the University of Alaska, professors warn new graduates that taking jobs at OCS brings a great, and well-documented, risk of burnout. With burnout, overwork, and the inability to spend time in the field investigating cases, we risk alienating foster families who don’t get their calls returned, risk failing to meet the educational and mental health needs of foster youth who bounce between schools and often more than a dozen foster homes, and risk failing to notice child abuse — as multiple OCS visits to a Bethel home in a recent case revealed.

Kids aren’t ping pong balls. Investigating abuse claims takes time. A staff with chronic burnout, turnover, and excess caseloads just makes that problem continue. It jeopardizes continuing a statistic showing roughly 40 percent of foster youth in Alaska end up homeless at some point in their lives.

Alaska will benefit, fiscally and from a humanitarian standpoint, if more foster youth graduate from high school (even less likely when we have too few foster families), find abuse when it occurs, and send more foster youth to college and vocational training, rather than place them in jail, state-paid prosecution, homeless shelters, and on state-paid welfare.

To make things worse at OCS, since the study was commissioned the number of foster youth has jumped from roughly 1,700 to 2,000, making burnout and staff turnover even more likely.

That’s why Rep. Geran Tarr and I wrote to the governor asking that he implement his own report and his agency’s own conclusions in his budget, which will be released later this week. It calls for roughly 40 support staff statewide (OCS claims the 50+ number of staff in its report was the result of a mathematical error).

I want youth to have the same chance to succeed that I had as a foster youth. But OCS is an overburdened, hampered agency that is being asked to protect children without the needed staff to do it.

As Rep. Tarr said recently, “It’s been said that a society can be judged by the way it treats its children, and by that standard Alaska can do much better. Giving case workers these resources now, can go a long way to protecting Alaska’s children.”

Former child protection worker and retired attorney who worked on OCS cases, Jim Parker, notes:

“When you have inadequate foster care staff, you risk missing child abuse cases, you risk fostering failure rather than success for foster children, and you alienate needed foster parents because there isn’t staff to timely review foster parent applications, and help foster parents with a very difficult job.”

While the report has languished, OCS has become even more overburdened.

It’s time to act. Sticking your head in the sand, or claiming success in the face of child abuse and failure, isn’t leadership.

Read the report commissioned by the Parnell administration

Les Gara is a State House Representative from Anchorage. A former foster youth, he had the support to graduate college and law school with honors, and advocates strongly on behalf of foster and at risk youth in Alaska.

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13 Responses to “Parnell Should Choose Support for Youth”
  1. P.J. says:

    It amazes me that every day I see multiple facebook posts about “save a dog”, and it’s not that I don’t love dogs, but what about a save a kid post?

  2. Zyxomma says:

    Thank you, Les and Jeanne.

  3. akmom says:

    Gov Zero should just show support for any Alaskan at this point.

  4. No Name says:

    Parnell is such a glory hound I am not sure he would know respect if it tapped him on the head…feel free…

  5. fishingmamma says:

    This report is in line with the indian commission report that came out recently, blasting Alaska for the dismal conditions in the villages and the third-world-ness of much of our population. Many of the children in the system at OCS are native kids, and the Governor is working to limit the tribal court’s juridictions in these cases. These two reports are, in my mind inextricably linked and our entire state government should be held accountable, because the court system also has the power to act on behalf of these children. It is apalling that a state with a multi-kadgillion-dollar savings account has the audacity to cry poor when it comes to taking care of our people. Shame on us. Not just shame on the Governor, or on “that guy, over there”, but shame on all of us for allowing this.

    • yukonbushgrma says:

      Bottom line, the State of Alaska should be ashamed. Why can we not take care of our people?

      Native or not — we are all Alaskans. If the Governor chooses “Respect,” then he by golly needs to put his money where his mouth is.

      I hope the State isn’t just adding a few low-level staff to make it look like they’re doing something. That isn’t going to do it. We need people to actually DEAL with each and every problem.

      Sounds to me like they’re just throwing a bit of money at the “problem,” hoping it will go away ………

      YBG

      • Lol... says:

        because they are “programming you to fail” and you need to be “failed to program” and get those Native Corporations to get off their butts and start filing the paperwork to the 1971 Native Claims Settlement Act…just because they have a little money in their pockets doesn’t mean they forget where they came from and who they are…anyone can donate a kick in the azz to the legal departments…

  6. AKMagpie says:

    Thanks Les for all the good work you do! And thanks Jeanne for bringing this to our attention.

  7. Les says:

    Tx for posting this Jeanne.

  8. ugavic says:

    I am a little behind in reading posts. I wish this subject showed a larger response from Alaskans!!

    The vast children are not in the ‘system’ due to a ‘failure’ on their part but instead the failures of adults. Not offering the kids that are in our state’s foster care system a safe place to live, learn and grow is a failure I cannot even put words to.

    I must stop here as any thoughts I would go on to express would be less than ‘OK’.

    • Les says:

      Tx for caring

    • yukonbushgrma says:

      Vic, I know you’re right.

      What will it take to get the State and others to get together to finally decide they want to put some money toward our next generations?

      I can’t believe we are so stupid sometimes. Honestly, we REALLY need to be careful the next time we elect someone to a State position! YIKES.

      YBG

  9. mike from iowa says:

    This isn’t gonna help,but if efficiency is the game,why not hunt these kids from helicopters. Even in buffer zones,crosswalks,school playgrounds and hell,even churches? Why work so hard to make their lives worse? I’d love to help you get enough nutrition to perpetuate your misery a little further,but right now I have to finish my thesis on the divine rights of Kings.

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