Columns 2017

Social workers need support services available for families if we are to impact the problem

Have you noticed the pattern yet? Every two to three years another report is released about the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) that loudly proclaims that the system designed to protect Alaska’s most vulnerable population is failing it. Children fall through the cracks. Children languish in foster care. Children are placed in foster homes where the horrors are worse than the homes from which they were removed. The list goes on and on.

Every time this report comes out… and let’s be real here, it’s the same report each time with just a different date and slightly worse statistics… the answer given to the problems noted is to hire more social workers. The majority of us shake our heads in disbelief that parents could be so horrible to their children and that the system could, in turn, be so horrible in its response. And then we forget about it until the next report comes along.

This year, despite a general pull back on finances, the state has actually funded more social worker positions. Too bad those social workers will find the same dismal support systems in place as their predecessors. You see, without the wrap around support services many troubled families need, helping a family to heal and become whole is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Social workers are trained to do a lot of things. Those who go into front line work intervening with troubled families, removing kids from dangerous situations and placing them in hopefully safe ones can only do so much. They can work with and counsel a family about what needs to change, but they can’t make the changes. Nor, sadly, can they offer them the services the family might need to transition into a safe home because those services are not available.

You can hire a million social workers and the situation will get only minimally better because those million social workers will still have the very limited resources provided by the state to assist the families with whom they work. You can tell a parent they need substance abuse treatment in order to have their children returned to them. But when the line for that service stretches around three city blocks and the wait time is upwards of six months for a slot, the chance that the parents will continue to use and abuse is great. Why get sober now when help is six months away?

And it’s not just about substance abuse. Many parents whose children are removed were themselves once children being removed. They have no frame of reference for a healthy family life without substance abuse and domestic violence as part of the picture. But again, programs designed to help them create a better family are available on a very limited basis with another very long waiting list.

Children are not supposed to languish in foster care anymore. The philosophy is that they need stability as soon as possible. So if parents don’t take the needed steps to correct the problems in the home that caused the children to be removed in the first place, then the children should be freed up for adoption into a stable home sooner rather than later. But this is a hard sell in front of a judge when you have to admit that all the services recommended for the family to use six months ago are still full and the family is still waitlisted.

Child abuse and neglect are horrible problems in this state. They are almost incomprehensible to those of us who value the children in our lives. But they exist in every strata of our society. They are equal opportunity nightmares. Curbing them takes more than hiring more social workers, though god knows they are desperately needed. But without the associated ancillary services that allow a family to heal and learn a better, more sober and peaceful way of life, the social worker is in the unenviable position of showing parents the path to Nirvana and then explaining that it is totally blocked for months to come.

The state coffers are in sad shape. The idea that human services will get any priority in the next legislative session is a pipe dream. After all, first we have to pay those oil companies for the privilege of taking our oil. So substance abuse treatment programs, well family programs, domestic violence abuse counseling, all take a back seat.

We send social workers to the front line armed with empty weapons and expect them to defeat the monster. It’s not going to happen.