Audit: State's child protection agency improves but still struggling

Posted: Sunday, April 30, 2000

ANCHORAGE - A legislative audit says Alaska's child protection agency is doing a better job of responding to reports that children are being abused or neglected.

The audit said, however, that the division must create some better systems for managing child abuse cases and work more closely with troubled parents.

This is the fourth such audit looking at the Division of Family and Youth Services in two years. It was released this week, and it was done to determine if the agency and the Legislature are following up on some earlier recommendations.

The division was investigating 90 percent of all the reports it received about child abuse and neglect through November, the audit said. That compares with a low of about 70 percent in fiscal 1997.

State law requires that every report be investigated, but the agency said it doesn't have enough staff to do that.

Auditors attribute the improved record to the hiring of 28 additional social workers. An experimental program in the Matanuska-Susitna area also has helped the response rate. Low-priority reports there now are being handled by a nonprofit agency.

``They concluded, as we did long ago, that with more staff, we can do more,'' said Russ Webb, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Health and Social Services, which includes the Division of Family and Youth Services.

A stronger child protection law that took effect in September 1998 appears to be making a difference in getting children into safe, permanent homes.

In cases where the agency has custody of the child, caseworkers are doing a better job of planning for two possibilities at once: that the parents will improve their behavior or that they won't. That way, the state is ready with an alternative should children be unable to live safely with their own parents.

The agency is failing to document whether parents are actively involved in their case plans, where requirements like drug treatment and counseling are laid out.

In a sampling of 66 case plans, only 17 had been signed by parents. In a half-dozen cases, the parents refused or couldn't be found.

``It is unclear whether the absence of a parental signature, without any explanatory remarks, suggests disapproval of the case plan, the absence of discussion about the case plan, or administrative oversight,'' auditors said about the rest.

Parents often complain that the plans are too subjective or that a new requirement is added as soon as another requirement is met.

Auditors also have recommended that the agency do more with troubled families in cases where it doesn't remove the children.

Webb told the Anchorage Daily News the agency wants to do that, but doesn't have enough resources. The number of children in state custody is at an all-time high, and workers are stressed and frustrated by their inability to do enough as it is, he said.

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