Senator Sean Parnell's Anchorage Daily News Interview on How to Protect Abused and Neglected Children
Appeared on Nobember 30, 1997 page F-6

Question: How big of an issue do you think child protection will be during the coming legislative session.

Answer: Well for me, it's my highest priority. I think it will be significant both from the administration's standpoint and from the legislative standpoint.

Q: Do you think Alaska is doing an adequate job of protecting these children.

A: Absolutely not. It's clear that there are some real tough management issues to resolve there. I know (Karen Perdue, commissioner of health and social services) is working on them, but clearly we're not meeting the need that is there.

Q: Why do you think Alaska has such a high rate of child abuse?

A: You can't even just look at Alaska alone. As I understand it, from the studies I've read, nationwide, we have more incidents of child abuse and neglect than all the industrialized countries combines. So it's not a problem unique to Alaska. But the growth and magnitude of the problem in the last 10 years has caused me a lot of concern.

Q: Are there other social issues in Alaska that contribute to this? Alcoholism? Domestic violence?

A: Well sure. I think everybody would recognize there are contributing factors and that children of alcoholic parents are more at risk of child abuse than children of nonalcoholic parents. Alcoholism and anything else you could link to child abuse and causing risk, those are symptons to me of deeper personal problems. It all boils down to the individual depravity of human hearts combined with other societal factors, alcoholism and other issues.

Q: Why does it take a case like that of the 6-year-old girl who was raped after 16 previous reports that she was in danger to focus attention on this problem in Alaska?

A: It raises the consciousness of the issue. My domestic violence prevention act that I sponsored and passed two years ago was a response to domestic violence and child abuse that I saw on a ride with an Anchorage police officer. That raised my awareness. it's only when people become aware that the problem exists that we do something about it.

Q: Some critics assert that the state's leadership is more concerned with the oil industry than with children's issues. How do you reconcile the need for money for children's programs with the difficulty in raising revenue, since so much comes from one source, the oil industry?

A: First off you are assuming the system needs more money. And I think you have to look at that assumption critically. There are many vacant positions in DFYS right now that are funded. They completed investigations on about 10,500 reported cases of abuse and neglect last year. There were about 15,000 reported, so there is a gap of 4,000 to 5,000 that they really didn't get to. And yet they've got vacant positions in DFYS.

I ask myself, if those positions were filled, would we still be doing the job? Nationally and in Alaska, the answer is "no" because the procedures are relatively uniform. It is a system that is focused on the technicalities of determining whether a particular incident occurred. It is pretty clear that system is not keeping pace with the increased reporting and the increased occurrences that we are seeing. Additional funding is not a appropriate response if it is going to fuel the same failing system. If it is going to a different system, a better system, I'm poised for it.

Q: Do you have ideas on how to create a better system?

A: We have to look at models in other states that have begun to address this issue, Florida, Missouri, Hawaii, Virginia. Basically, it all boils down to what are the roles of people working for DFYS and what is the role of law enforcement. I would like to see more of an emphasis in the department on accessing the needs of the families and children involved. I would like to see more emphasis in law enforcement on investigating allegations of child abuse. In some states it is known as a dual-track approach. One track is the investigation track. The other track is assessing needs of the family and delivering services to meet those needs. That goes back to the issue of dealing with alcoholism, no jobs in the family, anything that puts additional stress on the family, it's not original to me. It's just that I think we need to look at a different delivery system, one that focuses on the family as a whole and the issues that are there rather than focusing on ferreting out a particular incident of abuse and that's it.

Q: Should the goal of the state be to keep children safe, or should it be to preserve families, if you have to pick one or the other.

A: You can either remove the child from the risk or you can remove the risk from the child. Those are very discrete ways of looking at it, but I don't think we've addressed the risk. I think we've been pulling the child. If we are going to start meeting the needs of families, we are going to start addressing removal of the risk, either through treatment or support. DFYS needs more flexibility in its approach. They need all of the above tools. They need to be able to remove children when they are in imminent danger. At the same time, they need the flexibility to diminish the risk in the homes, whether that is alcoholism or any of the other symptoms.

Q: Would you support any loosening of the confidentiality statutes to allow more information released, say in the rare, tragic case where a child has died from abuse or neglect, for the agency to say whether it had prior involvement with the family.

A: I don't think the agency has to operate in a complete zone of privacy. There are other ways to get at accountability of the agency, which is ultimately what we are talking about here. One way is through audits. The long and short of it is, I don't know whether the confidentiality laws need to be changed, I just know there needs to be some more accountability built into what DFYS does.

Q: I'm going to give you a short list of the areas that might be contributing to the struggles of DFYS. Tell me which ones you thing contribute. You may have some other ideas:

A: This is as much executive branch as legislative branch. I think there is a lack of direction. I'm at a point where I don't want to attack people because we all have to work together to fix this thing. What we need is a person, like myself or the governor for instance, standing up and saying, "This is the direction we are going to go. We are going to protect children's safety, and we are going to work to assess the needs in the family and we are going to do a better job of each, and you can hold me accountable for that." It will take a strong executive doing that. I don't want that to be taken as a charge against our governor or against our commissioner. I think they are very concerned about the issues and are working on it.

Lack of money, we've already touched on. I don't think us funding 20 more positions is going to help if they can't hire people to fill the vacancies they've got. Lack of training, I would agree nationwide that's a problem.

I don't think there is a lack of public concern about child abuse. So that would be the only one that I would really say is not as valid as the rest.

Q: Do you believe additional money might be needed for child protection, or have you ruled out that possibility?

A: I would rule it out under the current system. I would not rule it out if we were going to transform the system. If they can fill those vacant positions and they say they need 20 more, I wouldn't rule out more funding.