Extra Money Won't Fix Child-Protection System
Appeared in the Anchorage Daily News
November 14, 1997 on page B-8

By Senator Sean Parnell

The Daily News offered extensive coverage of Gov. Tony Knowles' plan to spend $31 million more on child protection programs. The News then ran an editorial that discussed the governor's plan but failed to acknowledged that many legislators, including myself, have been working on a child protection plan that really will meet the state's needs. A week before the Governor's State of the Child address, I interviewed with a Daily News reporter about the failures of Alaska's child protection system and the new direction I believe we must take to better protect children.

Earlier this autumn, the Daily News spotlighted the Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Family and Youth Services' failure to investigate multiple reports of harm made against one family. Then, we learned that annually about 5,000 reports of harm to DFYS go univestigated. It is easy to conclude DFYS is underfunded. However, to make such a leap of logic could be a costly mistake.

An Oct 24, Legislative Finance Division report revealed DFYS had more than 40 vacant, funded employee positions in DFYS' regional offices. This mean DFYS' unfilled positions were funded by the Legislature, but DFYS management has been unsuccessful in hiring and retaining child abuse investigators. Health and Social Services Commissioner Karen Perdue has repeatedly acknowledged to me that DFYS has management issues to address related to hiring, training and retention of employees.

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that legislators would be critical of the governor's "Smart Start" plan to spend more dollars hiring more social workers when we cannot fill positions already funded by the Legislature. Do we really want to spend additional public dollars so we can have more unfilled positions at DFYS.

Common sense dictates that we should require the administration to tell us in detail what management policies are going to change to improve hiring, training and retention of employees. Certainly, DFYS employees and the public deserve as much as do thousands of children needing help and protection.

At a broader policy level, we should discuss every agency's role in the child protection system and how we define those roles, In my view, we must redefine the roles of DFYS and other state agencies in the child protection system to emphasize their strengths.

Law enforcement agencies like the Alaska State Troopers, local police departments and district attorneys' offices should take the lead sooner in investigating allegations of serious abuse. That's what law enforcement does well -- investigate and gather evidence. Competency at gathering evidence and conducting investigations is foundational to law enforcement, not the Department of Health and Social Services.

DFYS' primary role, on the other hand, should be to make an assessment of a family's needs, followed by an offer of needed services, rather than to gather evidence for a judicial proceeding. DFYS could still respond to less serious cases of maltreatment (like failure to supervise) with an assessment of family needs and an offer of time-limited services.

Until we maximize the inherent strengths of law enforcement (investigations and prosecutions) and maximize the strengths of the Health and Social Services (assessing and providing human services), the state's child protection system will remain fundamentally flawed.

After spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the entire child protection system (law enforcement and corrections, social services and health care, education, etc.) only to see escalating child abuse and neglect, are we really doing Alaska's children any favors by writing a larger check to a failing system?

Legislative support for spending additional funds would be easier to consider if we knew we were going to get results rather than more unfilled positions at DFYS.