ANCHORAGE (KTUU) The retiring Alaska Ombudsman released two scathing reports this month targeting the Office of Children’s Service, the state agency tasked with protecting Alaska kids.
As the number of children in state custody has ballooned since 2014 – in part because of drug abuse but also because the agency is more apt to remove infants from potentially dangerous homes – workers find themselves grappling with towering caseloads.
In the Q &A below, Office of Children’s Services Deputy Director Tracy Spartz-Campbell talks about the spike in children in state care, accountability for mistakes made by caseworkers, and staggering case loads for employees. The interview is edited for length and clarity:
Q: What can you tell me about the number of kids in OCS care over the past five years?
A: What we know is that over the five years the numbers have gone up substantially. I think if I remember correctly since 2014 we’ve seen about a 50 percent increase in children in out of home care. And that’s for a variety of reasons.
Certainly we’re just seeing a tremendous amount of reports coming in, of investigations that workers are having to do and more substantiated reports of abuse and neglect, where we believe abuse and neglect occurred in that case.
Some of the reasons for that, we are attributing to things like the opioid crisis that’s going on currently. We feel those affects as do other agencies in the state.
We also know that we are really putting a keen focus on the work with very young children. One of the things when we’ve looked at our data, when we’ve gone back and looked, we’ve noticed that there have been multiple reports on very young children, under the age of 1, that have ended up being screened out over a period of time and it’s taken three or four reports before we’ve gotten involved with that family. But now … we’re really looking very closely at those circumstances and assessing the risk and the safety factors of homes and that’s leading to more children coming into care.
Q: How much of the increase could be attributed to different procedures and a different approach to the work and how much is a greater number of kids in jeopardy?
A:I don’t know if we’ve drilled that deeply into that finer detail on that. We certainly know it’s a combination of things.
Q: How is the opioids issue showing its face, is it parents on pills or heroin and unable to care for their kids? What are you hearing from caseworkers?
A: It’s a myriad of issues. Certainly we’re seeing everything from prescription drugs to heroin and you know other drugs as well. There has always been a large issue with alcoholism in this state. So I don’t want to downplay that at all. But certainly when we have the issue of alcohol and other substances involved with families, that’s really alarming.
We’ve had issues with meth in this state and we’ve seen an increase in families where meth has been an issue. Where the children end up, where we end up getting involved with children is due to the behaviors of the parent. For very young newborns, for instance, if the parent delivers a baby that is addicted to any kind of medication, we’re going to be notified about that and we’re going to want to assess that situation.
We may not necessarily take custody, sometimes families make arrangements for instance to take care of the child while the parent might go into some kind of substance abuse treatment. We want to support families in those situations. In other cases, the situation might be so dire that we have to take custody.
… And then the other problem that we’ve had, that I think you’ve heard in other arenas, is the availability of substance abuse treatment in this state is not as responsive as we would like it to be. Typically parents would have to wait several months, at least, before they could get into those services.
Q: Was it the rise in drug abuse that led to the change in how OCS handles infants?
A: That was part of it. I think the other part is, I think in 2014 we had seen a bit of an increase in what we referred to as sleep deaths. Where a parent might roll over on a child and suffocate the child. And in those situations, many times the parent was intoxicated. That led to the state’s “safe sleep” campaign, which you may have seen PSAs for. That’s really where it started.
And as we looked at those issues, that’s why we decided to focus in on infants primarily.
Q: I’m trying to get a sense, is it a chicken or an egg issue? The greater case numbers was a result of taking more kids into custody by being more proactive with infants? Or are there more kids in need?
A: I think it’s hard right now for families in this state, just generally. What we’re seeing is several service providers have had to close their doors for funding reasons. And that impacts families, if they don’t have resources where they can go and get help.
Q: What type of service providers?
A: For OCS alone, we’ve lost a service provider in Fairbanks (Fairbanks Counseling and Adoption) recently, which was providing family support services which are what we consider our most front-end services. Our preventative services where families can go when they are crisis.
We’ve lost those services here in Juneau (Catholic Community Service), with one of our providers here. And in Anchorage, they’ve lost a big family support and family preservation provider (Salvation Army Booth Memorial). That program in Anchorage, particularly, they were really working with families that were trying to reunify with their children.
With children who have been in our custody, the family was working through their case plan and these are services that were helping to transition those children back home.
Q: What do you know about the reasons they closed their doors or stopped providing those services?
A: Well in some cases it was funding. In other cases there were just decisions made by their board.
Over that same time frame, what’s been happening with your budget?
A: I feel very fortunate that our budget has been able to be sustained over these many years when other divisions within the department have had to take some enormous cuts. And part of that is the commitment I think of the Legislature, our governor and also our commissioner. Recognizing that we really do need to support these programs for children and families.
In this budget cycle, the budget that passed out of the legislature included a $3.29 million re-allocation of (Health Department) funds to OCS to help us with hiring additional staff persons. So we feel very supported in that. All that said, however, we still don’t have the funds for resources. … We rely on other divisions. So if we have a parent who has mental health or substance abuse issues, we really count on the Division of Behavioral Health, for instance.
If we have a family that’s really dependent on public assistance services, we really count on the Division of Public Assistance for food stamps and TANF checks. So those services we see at the department level being cut and that impacts our families as well.
Q: What about the number of cases per worker?
A: We’re shooting for a national average of 12 families per worker. So, if you think of a family having two children in it. That would mean that worker would be responsible for maintain records for two children as well as their parents as well as any relatives that may be involved with that case. So what we’re shooting for is the national average of 12 families per worker.
The reality is, what we’re seeing, is we have caseloads that are as high as 43 in Wasilla and can be as low as say five in Valdez.
And most cases are averaging in the 20 to 30 range in other areas of the state.
… We have received increases to our positions, and not all of those have gone to the front line.
In the mid 2000s we received a substantial increase to our frontlines. But we didn’t increase some of those support positions. Our licensing positions for foster care licensing or our social service associate positions which help with visitations … As well as our office assistant work. Later, we did get those positions, we did get some additional funding. Like I said in the 2018 budget, there is a request for an additional 31 positions with this $3.29 million.
Q: In the two ombdusman reports … The foster parent who is accused of abusing the girl in foster care, was she his first foster child?
A: He had had other children in the home, yes.
Q: Do you know how many?
A: I believe it was four.
Q: Is there any indication that any of those other four kids were abused?
A: We’ve had no other reports of any kind of abuse in that home.
Q: Have you investigated that? In other words, you haven’t received reports of abuse, but has anyone gone back to talk to the kids?
A: I really can’t say, I haven’t looked into that.
Q: In that case the ombudsman seems to be saying you have the biological father who was eager to get custody, and the caseworker in that case is blamed for not facilitating that request in a timely manner. Not providing information at times that were critical. Not responding to his phone calls. What can you tell me about that, was it a case worker doing a poor job? Was it a function of the case load?
A: I haven’t reviewed the specifics of the case so I don’t know if I can be real clear about what the case worker did or not … but what I will tell you is that the case loads in that particular office, this is out of Wasilla, are very, very high. And it’s going to end up being that things are going to fall off.
Not knowing again the specifics of this case, when we have children in foster homes that we believe are safe, often we lean toward those kids where we think they are unsafe. And we are going to put a lot of attention into those.
It is not to say that workers shouldn’t be seeing children, and I can’t tell you how often this worker saw this child. Though I do know she did see the child. But it does mean that we have a presumption that when children are in a foster home, that they are in safe placement. So we really do focus our resources on those children that are less safe.
Q: In that case the ombudsman is alleging basically that it should have been crystal clear that this girl wasn’t in a safe situation. That there were kind of these classic red flags of sexual abuse that were being ignored, that mandatory reporters were seeing it and that nothing was done.
A: I think if I recall what the ombdusman had said is there were reports of things like failing grades and the child being hungry, those kinds of things. Yes those need to be looked at, and yes they need to be considered, and like I said, I don’t have access to the records to see how the worker responded to those.
But what I can tell you is we hear about those symptoms in other situations, and it does not necessarily lead to sexual abuse. It could be a neglect situation, it could be a situational situation, we just don’t know. I’m aware of that statement I guess I would maybe take a little bit of exception in that we see those symptoms in other situations and we don’t find sexual abuse.
Q: One thing that the director said to KTOO … was that if you reviewed many, many cases at OCS, there would be examples where the ‘T’s weren’t crossed, the ‘I’s weren’t dotted, things were falling through the cracks. … She said it’s impossible to do that for every single case worker we have, ‘it’s an impossible job.’ And that really caught my attention. Is OCS saying it can’t do its job of protecting vulnerable Alaska children?
A: I would say to you we do our best. And the case loads are really a factor.
I guess I would maybe give a further clarification on the directors statement in that the requirements that are placed on OCS from our various federal funding sources are pretty stringent and they require a lot of ‘T’ crossing and a lot of ‘I’ dotting. We also have requirements that are placed on us through our Alaska state statutes, we have requirements placed on us by the courts. When it’s all coupled together and you bring all those requirements together, it is an impossible amount of requirements for any one worker to meet in any single case.
And we do our best.
… We have that policy and procedure manual because of the plethora of requirements that we receive through federal and state statute requirements.
The requirements for our funding and then things that come out through the court decisions and the parameters that are placed on us by the courts as well.
All of that factors into an awful lot of things that re being placed on OCS workers every day. And for them to get it right every single case, every single case, every single time, is an impossible.
And it’s not to say they don’t try. We have very good case workers out there. We have people doing very good case work.
Q: Is the case load and the work load and the burden of doing this job, is that being used to excuse people who are simply not doing it right, and should not be doing it?
A: I would say to you that certainly the safeguard that we have put in place is that every worker has a supervisor. Those supervisors are required to meet with their workers regularly and speak to the cases where the workers are having issues. And in addition to that, that supervisor has a manager, and that manager has a manager.
Throughout that whole level of supervision and management, we have various accountability steps as well.