Role of child welfare agency largely misunderstood, new report finds

Published: Jul. 5, 2016 at 5:13 PM AKDT
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Most child protection workers employed by the state stay on the job for about a year, and retaining these frontline employees is a major challenge for the Office of Children’s Services, according to research from the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA.)

Because of the emotionally taxing nature of the job, which often entails removing kids from abusive homes, child protection workers often suffer secondary trauma as a result of their jobs, according to a recently released report.

The report’s chief author is Diwakar Vadapalli, an assistant professor at UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research and chair of the Citizens Review Panel. The panel is a federally mandated body charged with helping state and local child protection systems respond better to community needs. In Alaska, the agency it monitors is the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) which has about 500 employees.

The report stems from responses to a survey by OCS workers. The survey is usually done annually in-house but this year OCS decided to have UAA and the Citizens Review Panel handle the project. They were assisted by graduate students in economics and public policy.

“They added a level of depth that ours hasn’t had,” said Christy Lawton, director of OCS.

The authors received 272 complete answers to the survey. Besides documenting the high turnover rate, the survey also found that the public largely doesn’t understand the work of OCS. That’s a problem because few government agencies have greater potential power over society than a child welfare agency, the report said.

Citing the Alaska Ombudsman’s office, the report noted that besides “the criminal justice system, which may take one’s money, one’s freedom and, in some states, one’s life, it is difficult to imagine a more fear-inspiring authority than the power to take away a person’s children.”

Just four percent of frontline OCS workers who responded to the survey said they feel the community understands the role they play in protecting children. This can make the life of a frontline worker very difficult in emotionally tense situations when they are out in the community visiting with families or conducting investigations of suspected child abuse, Vadapalli wrote in an email.

“Given the nature of the work and the extent that its mandate authorizes OCS to reach into the lives of families and children, it is extremely important that communities understand the purpose and methods of OCS,” the report found.

To educate people about the work of OCS, the agency plans to launch a series of public service announcements soon, Lawton said.

She said the media plays a role in public misconceptions about OCS.

“Every time the press comes to me it’s usually prompted by a tragedy,” Lawton said.