Representative Tammie Wilson from North Pole held OCS Public Testimony Hearings at multiple locations around the state, after a grand jury declined to investigate and turned over their findings to the Citizen’s Review Panel and the Ombudsman’s Office. The hearings were opportunities for those “not satisfied with the current state of the Office of Children’s Services”. Rep. Wilson has accused OCS of “legal kidnapping”.
As CPS workers, we are either accused of stepping on parents’ rights and kidnapping children who are perfectly safe or we don’t do nearly enough and leave children in grave danger in their homes. I decided to attend the hearing and below is what I said. I hoped it would be an encouragement to my fellow workers and a motivator to get the services that will actually help Alaska to be a safer state for children. Below is what I said:
My name is Jessica Veldstra and I am speaking as a private citizen. The opinions below are mine alone and do not represent the viewpoint of the Office of Children’s Services.
In 2014, an estimated 1,564 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States. Another 702,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect and 78% of the perpetrators of abuse were the child’s parents. (Source: U.S. Administration for Children and Families’ publication, “Child Maltreatment 2014”).
Alaska consistently has one of the top five rates of child abuse according to the Child Welfare League of America and it has the highest repeat abuse rates in the country with nearly 13% of children OCS investigated suffering repeat abuse or neglect. The average national rate was less than 5.5% (Source: Research Matters No 95: Assessing Repeat Child Maltreatment in Alaska).
In the last four years, custody cases have increased 50% from 1,860 children in out of home care in January 2012 to 2,802 in January 2016. (Source:http://dhss.alaska.gov/ocs/Pages/Statistics/default.aspx) During the same period of time, Alaska has seen an unprecedented increase in opiate abuse, overdose, and death rates. The over prescription of opiates has become more regulated and as prescription pills have become harder to obtain legally, those who are addicted to opiates turn to illegal street drugs and begin to use intravenously.
There is a much higher rate of children being born addicted to opiates and experiencing withdrawal symptoms. There is also a higher rate of children who are testing positive for drugs they are exposed to in their home environment.
Throughout this crisis, Office of Children’s Services workers are tasked with keeping children safe and families strong. No OCS worker wants to separate a child from their family and workers only take the child out of the home when no other measure will keep the child safe. The emotional trauma that occurs from separating a child from their parents is taken extremely seriously; it dwarfs the consideration of additional financial and workload costs that are also shouldered by the State when a child is in out of home care. However, when a child cannot be parented safety and preventative measures and community support have proven ineffective or unavailable, a child’s safety is paramount.
Workers see families on their worst day. Initial Assessment workers arrive at homes with active drug trafficking and domestic violence armed with nothing but their badge and training. They have to know how to disarm a parent’s defensiveness to begin to address any of the issues that resulted in a protective services report. They have to know how to discern whether safety concerns actually exist, and they have to know how to build a rapport with the family while being seen as an outsider and an enemy. They work with parents because they know that the vast majority of parents, even those who neglect or abuse their children, love their children and want the best for them. If safety concerns exist, they work extremely hard to engage the family in preventative services to help children remain in the home so long as it is safe to do so.
If a child has to be taken into custody, a Family Services worker engages with the family to try to provide them with the services to help mitigate the safety concerns which culminated in the child being brought into out of home care. They work to ensure the child is safe and all their needs are met in the placement. They conduct, at least, monthly visits with the parents, foster parents, and children. The Family Service workers present the case to the court system that reviews their work to ensure that the parents receive due process and that OCS does not overstep their bounds. These workers see the parents from a strength based perspective and they try to build on those strengths in attempt to help the parent build a home that is safe for the child to return to. These workers rejoice with parents who achieve sobriety, those who engage with parenting education, those who are able to get their mental health needs met, or are able to get themselves and their children free from an abusive relationship. The best days are the days that a child can return to a safe parent and environment. The reason people get into child protection work is to make families stronger, not to tear them apart.
However, due to the highly stressful nature of child protection work, there is a high turnover in workers. The average OCS front-line worker only last 18 months, which is just long enough to get a solid grasp of what the job entails. When one worker quits, it often takes months before the next worker is hired and trained to take on the former worker’s cases. This leaves the workers who are left covering the vacant case load, leading to a domino effect of workers becoming exhausted, overwhelmed, burned out and finally, they also quit. The result is a tripling and sometimes quadrupling of case loads.
Workers often experience physical symptoms of the stress of the work such as headaches, nausea, hives, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety due to their inability to handle impossible case loads and their understanding that some of the work they cannot get done may endanger a child. No matter the consequences on workers, when the employees are overloaded, the true victims are the children whose safety cannot be assured.
Instead of continued investigations by Representative Wilson, which taps the already strapped resources of OCS by creating more work, the current oversight programs should be continued to be utilized. The balance of government power is already in place with legislators creating child protection laws and the judiciary system ensuring that OCS is carrying out the laws correctly. There is also the Citizens Review Panel and the Ombudsman’s Office to ensure that OCS is not abusing its power.
To truly create strong families and safe children in Alaska, we first need to create strong communities. So many families don’t know a single safe person they can place their children with if they are arrested or before they use intoxicants. Community members can reach out to at risk families so they know they have someone to turn to if they need an emergency caregiver for their children. Non-profits or faith based organizations can support unlicensed relatives, foster parent, and families at risk to ensure they have the resources they need to safely parent their own children or children placed in their home. Simple items such as housing and fuel to get to appointments or the food bank of DPA can make the difference between a relative being able to take placement or a child being placed in non relative foster home.
Secondly, we need a strong service array. We need immediate treatment options for people who are addicted to substances at the moment they are willing to seek help. Right now, many substance abuse treatment facilities have month long waiting lists which hinders people who are addicted from seeking the help they need. We need detox programs, as currently there are only two in the state. We need strong mental health programs with shorter waiting lists. We need providers that are educated in the most effective and up to date treatment options. We need sober after care housing in communities. We need housing assistance and homeless shelters that take families, including those who accept fathers with their children. We need one on one parenting programs for families who have their children in their home and those whose children have already been removed. It is extremely frustrating to have parents who are willing to engage in services and make hard changes only to find that no services are available to them.
Thirdly, we need strong OCS workers. We need increased training both in the classroom and in structured shadowing on the field before a worker is given a case load. We need supportive supervisors who are trained on how to motivate and educate workers. We need vacant case load coverage so that one worker resigning doesn’t cause a domino effect of a field office losing multiple workers. We need adequate support staff who do the paper work and data entry so that field workers can do the vital face to face work without spending most of their time in the office.
Finally, we need community support. We need willing foster parents, partnerships with the medical community, law enforcement, legal community, educational community and Tribes. If we work together, we can prevent child abuse and neglect, dramatically decrease out of home placements and make sure Alaska has safe children and strong families.