Report: Alaska fails to meet standards for child protection

State is one of 14 that failed in every category under new, rigorous tests

Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Alaska does a poor job of finding permanent placement of children in foster care and there is not enough face-to-face contact between case workers and families, according to a federal review of the state's child protection services.

Alaska was among 14 states that failed in every category under new and more rigorous tests that measure not only the bureaucratic process but how children and families are actually being served.

In many instances, Alaska fell short, the review showed.

"It's an acknowledgment that we have to constantly review our child protection systems," said Joel Gilbertson, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Social Services. "It's going to get a large effort by the state."

Federal reviewers examined 50 child protection cases - nearly half of which were children in foster care - in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Nome during a 12-month period.

There are more than 2,310 children in the state's child welfare system and most are in foster care or some type of out-of-home placement.

The state did a good job of preventing children from re-entering foster care and placing foster children with siblings and in close proximity to family, the review found.

But the state failed to meet national standards for preventing repeat mistreatment, preventing mistreatment of children in foster care, providing stable foster care, resolving adoption quickly, or reuniting the family.

In more than half the cases, mistreatment occurred again within six months and in a number of cases face-to-face contact between families and caseworkers was inadequate to monitor the child's safety.

The state employs 160 "front-line" case workers to respond to reports of abuse, neglect and other issues. State caseworkers are juggling on average about 24 cases, which is above the national average, state officials said.

In a large number of cases, children and families were not receiving needed services or being involved in case planning, according to the federal review.

Finding a permanent and stable solution to foster care was also cited as a problem, along with more timely adoption.

Already, the state has taken some steps to correct problems found in the federal review, Gilbertson said. But he said the state needs better management and improved support to correct the problems outlined.

A reorganization of the Department of Health and Social Services was put into place earlier this year and a new Office of Children's Services was created to handle all child protection cases.

A new $15 million computer system is expected to be working by fall 2004 to provide caseworkers a complete history of a child's case, Gilbertson said.

The state agency submitted an improvement plan in July, but it has not yet been approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. States have two years to make improvements or lose federal child welfare money.

None of the 32 states examined passed more than two of the federal "outcomes," and an additional 14 states and the District of Columbia failed six of seven.

"A lot of states are struggling with the outcomes. These are very comprehensive reviews and more comprehensive than any we've conducted," said federal agency spokesman Jerry Milner.

State officials say not enough foster families are available, and efforts are under way to increase the number of Native foster families. There are 1,200 foster parents in the state.

In addition, heavy caseloads carried by caseworkers are cited as a problem in a number of instances during follow up interviews, according to the review.

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