Report finds DFYS falls short of federal standards

Posted: Friday, June 14, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An analysis by the Division of Family and Youth Services finds that nearly a quarter of Alaska children who suffered abuse or neglect between 1998 and 2000 were hurt again within six months.

The department's self-assessment comes as federal officials prepare to conduct a review of the state's child protection agency.

Under a federal standard, abuse or neglect should recur no more than 6.1 percent of the time. In Alaska repeat cases occur at least 20 percent of the time.

That's far too high, said Theresa Tanoury, DFYS director. No other state reviewed so far has met that federal standard, she said.

Many repeat cases stem from children being neglected because of their parents' alcohol abuse, the DFYS' analysis found. The agency often gets calls about a toddler unsupervised while the mother is passed out or children being left alone while the parents are drinking.

The state lacks the resources to help these troubled families, especially in rural areas, the report said. A state survey found that 150 children had mothers waiting for substance abuse treatment in late 2001. That is expected to worsen with cuts in the coming budget year affecting alcohol treatment programs as well as services intended to keep families together by helping parents.

A look at some of the initial complaints showed they weren't serious enough for the state to take custody of the child to prevent a recurrence, Tanoury said. But the families still needed help, such as alcohol treatment, counseling or parenting classes, she said.

In addition, Alaska's high rate of repeat abuse or neglect is somewhat inflated because of how Alaska categorizes cases, according to the DFYS assessment.

If child abuse investigators can't tell whether a child has suffered harm from abuse or neglect, they categorize the complaint as unconfirmed. Those count along with substantiated cases in Alaska's total, Tanoury said. Most states require some signs of abuse or neglect for cases to be so classified.

When unconfirmed cases are counted as part of the mix, Alaska's recurrence rate is 24.4 percent. When they are taken out, the rate drops to about 20 percent.

DFYS has is reviewing cases of children who have been hurt repeatedly, Tanoury said.

In all, DFYS fell short on five of six specific standards, the new analysis showed.

Alaska had a relatively high level of abuse and neglect in foster care. During a nine-month period in 2000, 56 children were abused or neglected in foster care. That's 1.9 percent of Alaska foster children, roughly three times the federal standard.

The safety of foster homes has been a serious issue. Two Alaska foster mothers in recent years have been convicted of killing a foster child.

DFYS recently tightened its policy to make it harder for foster homes where children have been abused or neglected to remain open, Tanoury said. Most have closed.

The self-assessment also looked at what is happening to children in state custody long term. Too often, it found, Alaska is not reunifying children with their parents soon enough. And it fails to get those who can't go home adopted as quickly as it should. Alaska foster children also are being shuttled among foster homes, treatment centers and shelters too often, DFYS found.

But once foster kids go home, they usually are able to stay there, DFYS determined. Fewer than 5 percent ended up back in foster care within a year. That's much better than the federal requirement of no more than 8.6 percent.

The federal review will go far beyond those specific standards. An onsite inspection begins June 24. Reviewers will study abuse and neglect cases out of the Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Nome offices. DFYS expects a final report by July 28.

Workers whose cases are to be inspected by the federal team are nervous, Tanoury said. If serious deficiencies are found, they could face discipline. But the overall goal is to help them help families, she said.

''My message is we are all in this together,'' she said. ''We are going to be honest and open about what they find and figure out how to be better.''

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