Knowles appoints panel to make child welfare recommendations

Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles pre-empted a federal audit of the state's child welfare system on Monday by creating a panel of his own to make recommendations to the next governor.

The 16-member Commission on Child Protection will be expected to make recommendations on improving the state's child protection services by Oct. 1.

Knowles said its work will be included in transition documents his staff is currently preparing for the next governor. Knowles has served two terms as governor and leaves office in December.

He said the ''white paper'' report could be the basis of future recommendations to the Legislature on ways to improve the state's child welfare system.

A federal review team recently completed an audit of the state Division of Family and Youth Services examining that very topic. The report is expected to be released within two weeks, state officials said.

The review was for the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is part of a larger audit of all 50 states.

Health and Social Services Commissioner Jay Livey, who oversees DFYS, said the audit will be critical of Alaska's foster care efforts and its response to some child neglect cases.

Livey has not seen the report but on Monday outlined some of the comments he heard from auditors during an exit interview.

Among the criticisms, the state needs to provide greater stability for children in foster care, allow more parental visitations and include parents in case management decisions, Livey said.

Alaska also needs to improve its record of investigating cases of neglect or harm to children, Livey said.

Social workers currently investigate about 92 percent of child neglect and harm cases that are reported to the state. Six years ago, about 73 percent of such cases were investigated.

State officials don't have the resources to investigate all cases of neglect and harm but instead have to prioritize reports based on the level of danger to the child, Livey said.

A similar panel appointed by Knowles in 1997 concluded that the Division of Family and Youth Services suffered from chronic understaffing that ''renders it incapable'' of responding to all abuse reports.

Knowles said he welcomes the criticism from federal auditors and will ask the panel to take a broader examination of the state's child protection system.

''The unvarnished truth is going to make us stronger and better,'' Knowles said.

The report is also expected to be completed more than a month before voters go to the polls in the Nov. 5 general election to pick a new governor and Legislature.

It is hoped that the panel's findings will become a campaign issue in many races, including the 57 legislative seats that are up for election this year, Knowles said.

Last session the Legislature turned down a $6 million request for additional alcohol and mental health treatment and a request to hire five state troopers to investigate child abuse cases, Knowles said.

''The public needs to know who's for kids and who is just kidding,'' he said.

The 16-member panel will be chaired by Elmer Lindstrom, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Health and Social Services.

It will also include Anchorage Superior Court Judge Elaine Andrews; Carol Brice, chair of Alaska Children's Trust; former Knowles' adviser Jim Ayers; and Jewell Jones, director of the Anchorage Health and Social Services Department.

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