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Protecting children

Posted: Monday, February 12, 2001

State Rep. Sharon Cissna wants Alaska to rethink one of its most important jobs: protecting children in potentially abusive homes. The Anchorage Democrat has filed a bill to deliver super-intensive services to families approaching crisis instead of yanking their children into foster homes. The goal is to keep the children safe while avoiding more expensive, and at times risky, foster care placements.

Rep. Cissna's ''intensive family services'' model definitely has promise. A family in crisis would get lengthy, repeated visits from a social worker for a month or so. A wider team of workers would connect the family to needed services, such as parenting classes or drug treatment or even economic aid.

But this intensive service model is not a panacea. When we are dealing with dysfunctional and potentially violent parents, there are no easy answers.

Obviously, keeping at-risk children with the family can be disastrous. In 1997, a 6-year-old Anchorage girl was brutally raped by her mother's boyfriend despite 16 previous complaints to child welfare authorities. In 1996, a Fairbanks toddler was killed by his uncle during a sexual assault, even though authorities were ''keeping an eye'' on the family.

Yet sending children to foster homes is no guarantee of safety. Ten-year-old Steven Murray endured 11 foster care placements before he was killed by his foster mother last year in Anchorage. Two-year-old Janessa Aquirre was killed in 1997 when her foster mother culminated three days of abuse by bashing the child's head into a concrete floor. Janessa's parents had hosted 16 other foster children without raising any suspicions.

Will the intensive services model provide more safety for less long-term cost? It has been around for more than 20 years and is used, with some variations, in about 30 states. Reports from the field are, with a few exceptions, generally favorable. On the skeptical side, though, an independent 1995 federal review dismissed many of the favorable reports as unscientific. But a National Research Council review noted that no research proves that foster care is safe and effective either.

If Alaska decides to go the ''intensive family services'' route, we have to do it right. Simply calling something ''intensive family services'' isn't enough. Leaving children in risky homes without intensive attention and support services is a prescription for disaster.

To make good on the promise of this model, workers carry only two or three active cases at a time and spend a good chunk of the week at the troubled family's home. And even if workers can deliver intensive attention, they must have proper training and be able to tap a broad array of follow-up family services, such as substance abuse treatment. Another important element is providing small amounts of money if needed to help the family weather a financial crisis that exacerbates the dangerous situation.

Providing such intensive services is likely to be more expensive in the short run. To get up and running, Alaska would have to hire more state workers. But eventually, the new model should pay off either in lower costs for foster care or lower rates of harm to children. In a time of tight state resources, investing in child safety has to be one of government's highest priorities



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