Child Protection in Alaska struggles to maintain staff, manage case loads
As many as 3,000 children are in foster care in Alaska on any given day, spread across some 1,300 licensed foster homes, according to Alaska's Office of Children's Services.
The workload for front line workers can be overwhelming.
Understaffing and high case loads put strain on a job that's already emotionally difficult. While no one wants kids to fall through the cracks, it does happen.
Lisa Reasner, a 30-year-old mother of two, is so terrified her kids will land in protective custody, she's meticulous about making sure no one can say they're in harms way.
They are fed, clothed and clean, and she's cautious about drawing attention when they venture out of the family home, worried a misconstrued situation might draw the attention of authorities.
This hypervigilance is just one of the scars she carries with her from her childhood.
When she and her younger brother walked to a nearby park as toddlers wearing only boots and diapers, it was, she said, the final event that separated them from her biological mother, who like her mother before her, had been a foster child.
Reasner hopes to break that cycle, and a cycle of abuse that has spanned four generations.
"I was very lucky to get out the way that I did," Reasner told KTUU during an interview in the well-appointed, tidy home she calls her "sanctuary."
"After my adoptive father passed away it got worse. I got pulled out of school. I got pulled into home school, and then it became 24/7 all the time, just the abuse," she said.
Reasner was just four years old the first time her real-life monster cornered her at night.
For 12 years, she suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of Rolin Allison Jr., a troubled, violent young adult, and the youngest biological son of her foster parents who were entrusted to keep her safe.
She spoke up about it but wasn't believed, and found that when she complained, life in the home got more difficult.
Eventually, Allison Jr. was arrested, charged and convicted on several counts of child sexual abuse.
A familiar face who showed up during his trial became an invaluable link between her troubles and her childhood abuse. There in the courtroom, her former caseworker said Allison Jr. never should have been in the home to begin with.
"She told me that she told my adoptive mother if she was to have us kids, that he was not to be around," Reasner said.
It was stunning information, as it meant that someone knew Reasner was at risk all along.
"I felt really really numb," she said. "I'm looking at her and I'm just thinking to myself, 'What did you just say to me?'"
Mike Kramer, an attorney who takes on government agencies that are supposed to protect vulnerable Alaskans, told KTUU that it's not an uncommon problem in Alaska.
"Kids are often left in these situations where they are known to be in danger and known to be suffering ongoing abuse," Kramer said.
He helped Reasner sue the Office of Children's Services, and won.
But many foster children, he said, never get that chance at justice.
"They know something bad happened in foster care, but they don't associate that with 'I had a social worker whose job it was to protect me from that sort of thing and to investigate the home properly,'" he said.
Child protection workers have tough jobs. In Alaska, there aren't enough of them to go around.
"Last year the turnover rate was approximately a little over 50 percent of our front line caseworkers, and in some offices, particularly...in some rural areas, we have as much as 80 to 90, 80 to 100 percent turnover rate," OCS director Natalie Norberg told KTUU.
Places like Bethel, Dillingham and Nome are struggling with staffing levels, so much so that the agency is allowing workers who want to live in Anchorage to make weekly commutes to their service region.
Because caseloads are high and reports of harm have increased in tandem with the Opioid crisis, children's services staff are often faced with doing triage — choosing among some 23,000 annual cases which ones should receive priority.
"We just really see the whole system kind of balloon with, you know, all of our attention having to be on the front end to just ensure basic safety of children," Norberg said.
That high volume of serious caseloads comes with an intense emotional toll and far-reaching ripple effects.
"Cases where kids are already in the system, those tend to possibly linger or languish longer than we would like," Norberg said.
Depending on the severity of a situation, OCS policy requires families with reports of harm to receive a face-to-face visit within 24 to 72 hours, or one week. Norberg told KTUU that some offices only hit that target in about 3 out of every 10 cases. The statewide average 51 percent, or 5 in 10 cases.
It's a failed target that comes as the state in 2018 received the highest number of calls yet — more than 23,000 reports of harm — to its child protection hotline.
"People are...concerned about our kids, and we're a very taxed agency but...we're doing the best that we can," Norberg said.
Kramer and Reasner remain concerned.
"You can't give a kid his childhood back, or her childhood back, or their innocence," Kramer said.
"It really can tear down a child, and it can tear down their whole life," Reasner said from a sitting room inside her home.
They both believe more can — and must — be done.
"We hope to continue to hold OCS responsible for their failings until they are able to make the systemic changes where these things just don't happen anymore," Kramer said.
Because, they say, Alaska's most vulnerable children deserve nothing less.
"I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be accepted. At the same time, I was saying 'something's happened. Investigate that.' That's really all," Reasner said. "If they would have just done that, they could have saved me 12 years of abuse."
OCS has added more positions and is working on recruitment and training, but the agency admits there is still a long way to go.