ANCHORAGE - A comprehensive federal review of Alaska's system of protecting children from abuse or neglect has found widespread deficiencies.
The federal assessment began more than a year ago and was released Friday at a joint meeting of the Governor's Commission on Child Protection and the Court Improvement Project.
"Alaska did not do well," said Steve Henigson, regional administrator for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to the findings, children do not get permanent families quickly enough and the system lacks crucial support services for parents and children.
Alaska is the 26th state to be reviewed. So far, no state has met all of federal requirements. Alaska appears to have more areas that need work than most, Henigson said.
If Alaska doesn't fix the problems, it faces a financial penalty of $189,618, a small portion of the federal funds that go to the state Division of Family and Youth Services.
Alaska officials did not dispute most findings but noted the job of trying to heal families is daunting for overloaded caseworkers in a state so big, remote and diverse. For example, in Anchorage, parents often wait months to get into substance-abuse treatment. In villages there may be no services at all.
"I think that a lot of the areas that we had recognized as problems were confirmed," said Jay Livey, Alaska commissioner of health and social services. "We now have some specifics and a road map and some outcomes that we can work toward."
Auditors examined 50 DFYS cases and interviewed parents, children, attorneys, caseworkers, foster parents, judges, tribal representatives, school employees and private agency workers. Federal reviewers also analyzed data on abuse and neglect cases and a self-assessment prepared by DFYS.
The federal report concluded that too many Alaska children are not protected from abuse and neglect. The federal standard is no more than 6.1 percent of children suffering repeated abuse or neglect in a six-month period. In Alaska, children appeared to suffer repeat mistreatment in about a quarter of the cases, the federal review said.
That number is likely inflated because of the way records are kept in the state's antiquated computer system, said Theresa Tanoury, DFYS director. A staff analysis estimated the number of repeat abuse or neglect cases at half of what the reviewers found. For instance, a doctor may report a suspicious bruise, and a teacher may report the same bruise a few days later, generating two reports of mistreatment on the same child, Tanoury said.
Regardless, the number is far too high, she said.
The report concluded that Alaska does not consistently provide enough help to troubled families to keep children safely at home and out of foster care.
The report said DFYS did not set realistic, timely goals to either return foster children home or place them in a permanent family in nearly 40 percent of 23 foster-care cases reviewed.
Generally, DFYS is supposed to seek termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care 15 of the previous 22 months.
Some parents needed extra months to get sober because of long waits for treatment. Some Native tribes said they thought time limits on foster care in federal and state law were too strict, reviewers were told.
In eight of 23 foster care cases reviewed, children were moved among three or more foster homes, treatment centers or other placements. One child was moved 11 times.
Visits between parents and children in foster care were lacking in 27 percent of foster care cases. Mothers got weekly visits in nine cases. But in two cases, mothers were not visiting their children at all. Fathers typically visited less than mothers.
A handful of parents and their advocates attended the morning briefing along with judges, social service workers and attorneys.
The review found that parents need a bigger voice in their cases and more help with their children.