State seal podium 2016 06 19

The seal of the state of Alaska in the governor’s temporary offices in Juneau, June 19, 2016. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The state’s Ombudsman’s Office has released reports for two investigations into the Office of Children’s Services – both involving the same caseworker.

In the first investigation, a father who lived out of state was trying to gain custody of his daughter. According to the Ombudsman, the father called the caseworker more than 130 times to try to start a complicated interstate placement agreement. During that time, the 8-year-old girl was sexually abused by her foster father. The caseworker was alerted to the possible abuse by multiple people, including the girl’s teacher and her counselor, but it was several months before she investigated and removed the child from the home. The foster father is currently awaiting trial for nine counts of sexual abuse of a minor.

In the second case, a baby was taken from her mother at birth about three years ago. The mother told the caseworker to contact the child’s great-grandfather in Arizona so he could take custody of the girl. OCS is legally required to try to place foster children with relatives first. Instead, the girl was placed with a non-relative foster family in Alaska. The caseworker was asked 27 times to contact the great-grandfather but didn’t for more than two years. She told the court twice that she had started the out-of-state placement process even though she hadn’t.

Out-going state Ombudsman Linda Lord-Jenkins said the cases show that in the foster care system, failing to complete administrative tasks can have long-term impacts.

“In both of these cases relatives were very interested and took very proactive steps to try to get OCS to initiate the studies that could lead to the children being placed with them,” Lord-Jenkins said during a phone interview. “And the caseworker didn’t initiate them and didn’t initiate them for long periods of time despite the obligations and reminders to do so. And that’s very distressing.”

Since 2015, there have been eight complaints against this worker. Lord-Jenkins recommended that OCS review all of her cases to see if there are other problems. But OCS Director Christy Lawton said that wouldn’t necessarily help because many of these problems stem from excessively high caseloads.

“Which isn’t to say it’s okay for there to be delays or untimely communications,” Lord-Jenkins said. “But that is the reality when caseworkers are carrying twice or three times the recommended average, which has been the case, particularly in our Mat-Su office for the past year.”

Additionally, Lawton said the worker is now being overseen by a different supervisor.

Lawton said with the high caseloads — more than 3,000 kids are currently in foster care — these types of problems are not unique to this caseworker. She said her employees are doing the best they can.

“I think if we reviewed any number of cases, we would find similar problems where everything wasn’t done to the ‘T’ that it should in terms of every single policy, every single phone call returned, every single thing happening timely,” Lawton said. “It’s simply impossible to do that virtually for every single caseworker we have, who has more than the recommended national average of cases. It’s an impossible job.”

OCS recently underwent a federal review and the agency will be implementing their recommendations over the next few years to try to improve, said Lawton. Additionally, legislation that would increase the number of caseworkers and decrease their case load, House Bill 151, is working its way through the state legislature.

Ombudsman Lord-Jenkins said she hopes OCS will start examining how they handle different administrative processes to potentially prevent these problems in the future.

“I would like the public not to lambaste these folks who are doing the best they can with what they’ve got,” Lord-Jenkins said. “But to also recognize that these things should not happen.”

The state’s Ombudsman’s office can only make recommendations. It cannot force any agency to do anything.

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