State child protection advocates say more resources needed

Posted: Wednesday, February 09, 2000

JUNEAU -- Two years ago, slides of bruised children removed from abusive Alaska homes helped convince legislators to spend more money for child protection.

On Tuesday, child protection advocates told legislators that spending increases used to hire more social workers has reaped great benefits, but more needs to be done.

''We want to continue the effort. It wasn't just a one-time shot,'' Gov. Tony Knowles told the Children's Caucus, a loose collection of legislators headed by Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, who meet weekly for briefings on children's issues.

Knowles made the rare appearance before the legislative committee to thank legislators for past action and to underscore the importance he is putting on child protection, education and health needs this year. More than 20 legislators attended the meeting.

Knowles' proposed $2.4 billion spending plan, which he has dubbed the ''Children's Budget,'' is an increase of $98 million over this year. About two-thirds of the increases are for children's programs.

They include a proposed $12.4 million increase for child protection to pay for more foster care, subsidized adoption, social workers and background checks for people who work with children.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Nelson gave an update on some of the children legislators heard about two years ago, including a 3-year-old who got sick in a car, vomited and was battered black and blue with a bottle by his mother's boyfriend. In another case, a boy was born with a blood alcohol level of .25 percent. He was removed from his mother two months after his birth after his weight had dropped from 6 pounds, 6 ounces to 3 pounds, 9 ounces.

Nelson showed photos of other children removed because their parents had used crawl spaces or dog kennels as a day care centers. All have been permanently placed in other homes.

Russ Webb, deputy commissioner of the Health and Human Services, said the state responded to 75 percent of all reports of abuse and neglect in 1997. Protection workers now respond to more than 90 percent of all legitimate reports of harm, he said. About half of the reports of harm are substantiated.

DFYS has reduced the backlog of children who had been in state care without a permanent resolution to their status. In November 1997, 662 children had been in temporary state custody for more than 15 months. About 66 percent have been permanently placed, including many reunited with their parents.

Webb said the Department of Family and Youth Services and the Department of Public Safety are working on a computer link that would alert social workers when police detect a problem at a foster parent's home, such as domestic violence.

Despite the progress, Webb said, additional steps are needed.

The state has added 200 foster homes to reach 1,291, but capacity remains insufficient for the temporary placement of children. Many foster parents end up adopting children in their care, making them ineligible to continue taking children temporarily.

DFYS Director Theresa Tanoury said caseloads for social workers remain above national standards of 15. In Bethel, there are 33 cases per available social worker. Kenai has 32, Anchorage 27, and Fairbanks 19 cases per available social worker.

Caseloads are also above national standards for state attorneys and guardians ad litem, the court-appointed advocates for children. Barbara Malchick, deputy public advocate, said guardians in Fairbanks and Bethel are assigned 140-175 children each.

''We can devote about one hour per month per child, which is not enough,'' she said.

Knowles request for more children's programs faces an uncertain future. Republican leaders in the Legislature say they are committed to cutting $30 million from next year's general fund budget, not increasing it.

Rep. Dyson said the question will be whether elimination of the backlog of children needing permanent homes will relieve pressure on the system.

''Is the existing staff level somewhat near where it should be for what we expect the steady state load to be?'' Dyson asked.

He said DFYS cannot refuse to take into custody any child who is abused or neglected.

''If they have to deal with more legitimate reports of children being harmed, then we have to do whatever it takes to pay for it,'' Dyson said.

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