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Trying to keep them together

OCS says breaking up a family is a last resort

Posted: Thursday, November 01, 2007

When the state Office of Children's Services is called to investigate a potential case of child abuse, its initial aim is to keep the children together and keep them with the family, according to the Kenai OCS.

"What we try to do is get the offender to move out of the home," said Kenai investigations supervisor Bill Galic.

Removal of the child from the home is among the least desirable solutions and is avoided if at all possible.

If a child is removed due to child abandonment, child abuse or the inability of a parent to provide adequate care, OCS then seeks a foster family to care for the child.

"We have a system where our workers talk with the children and with their siblings; talk with the parents; and with others," Galic said.

"Sometimes we can determine immediately if the child is in present danger," he said.

When someone suspects abuse is occurring, according to Richard Nault, deputy director of OCS, the department receives a protective services report, and based on the call, a person assigned by the supervisor goes out and begins gathering information, if warranted.

Their task is to determine if abuse occurred, assess the level of parenting and decide whether the report is substantiated.

They may or may not remove the child from the home. They may instead put in measures to ensure any maltreatment stops, Nault said.

If the child has physical injuries, local law enforcement may be contacted to accompany the OCS case worker, Galic said. Police will also be called if there is a threat of violence to the case worker.

"In (child) sexual abuse cases, there are protocols we go through to minimize the number of times we interview the child," he said.

Nault said, once a child is in custody, "there are legal requirements to assure we are not exceeding our authority."

"There's a court hearing within 72 hours of our taking custody," he said. "Then there are regularly scheduled court dates to assure we operate within certain parameters."

It is not the aim of OCS to remove children from their family's home.

"If we have reason to believe there's been sexual abuse or severe physical abuse a child has a broken arm ... (the abuser) is a real tough guy we contact police," Nault said. "In the majority of cases, we don't. We don't have a 'We gotcha' attitude.

"We want to ensure the child's safety and keep the child in the home," Nault said.

Alaska statute 47.10 lists reasons for removing a child from a home saying the court may find a child to be a child in need of aid for reasons such as abandonment, a parent or guardian has been put in jail, a child has suffered substantial physical harm, a child has suffered sexual abuse or the child has undergone various forms of neglect.

If a determination is made to remove a child from his or her home, OCS works to place the child in a suitable foster home.

"About 50 percent (of foster parents) in the state are relatives (of the child)," OCS social services program officer Tracy Spartz-Campbell said. That is the state mandate.

Although the reality is that many become foster homes in an emergency situation, she said the preferred process is for would-be foster parents to complete core training, be fingerprinted and have criminal background checks done. The family and the home are then assessed to ensure the safety of the child to be placed there. OCS looks for such things as home smoke detectors and fire detectors, for example.

"Then (foster parents) sign a licensing agreement," she said.

Nault said if a child is not returned to his or her mother following removal due to sexual or physical abuse by another member of the household, "there have to be other reasons the child is not returned to the mom."

"It may be that in the course of us looking into the case, we would find other requirements the mother has failed to meet," he said.

"Very often, people have different perceptions of what occurred," Nault said. "In other cases, it's not surprising that people don't always fess up to what a person did."

If people disagree with a decision or action of OCS, Nault said they have "a great many options."

They can speak with the local OCS supervisor, the staff manager or the regional manager. If they cannot contact anyone through those channels, they can file a grievance and have the case reviewed by another regional office, such as the Anchorage office, the northern region office or the southeast region office.

"The can also ask for an administrative hearing," he said. "The case would be reviewed outside the OCS department.

"People can also use the courts," said Spartz-Campbell.

Galic said, "Typically, kids remain in foster care until their 18th birthday. If we believe there is a need, we can keep them in custody until their 19th birthday."

After leaving foster care, many transition into independent living as they set out on their own.

Nault said each region has an independent living office to assist the young people with the transition.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.



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