The problem of child abuse is serious and real — in Alaska and everywhere else in America. But a recent study by researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage about the rate at which children known to the Office of Children’s Services are re-abused is built on a foundation of faulty assumptions and questionable data. As a result, it points toward “solutions” likely to make things even worse.
The report, compiled by UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, implies that OCS errs only in one direction, screening out cases that should be investigated and failing to substantiate maltreatment.
In fact, child welfare systems are arbitrary, capricious and cruel — they err in all directions. It is because Alaska investigates too many families, substantiates too many cases and takes away far too many children that the system is overwhelmed. And because the system is overwhelmed, workers don’t have time to give any case the attention it deserves. So they leave some children in dangerous homes even as many more are taken from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help.
Even when rates of child poverty are factored in, Alaska takes away children at a rate well over double the national average. How extreme an outlier is Alaska? In 2014, nationwide, 264,000 children were taken from their homes. Were every state like Alaska, it would have been 625,000.
The rate of removal in Alaska is nearly quadruple the rate in states such as Alabama and Illinois, where independent, court-appointed monitors have found that reforms built around keeping more children in their own homes improved child safety.
Of course, after reading the UAA study, some might think Alaska is a cesspool of depravity, with vastly more child abuse than the rest of America. It isn’t. Rather, the Alaska data reflect the subjectivity that goes into deciding what constitutes abuse and, especially, neglect.
Alaska defines “neglect” as “the failure of the person responsible for the child’s welfare to provide the child necessary food, care, clothing, shelter or medical attention.” By that definition, there is hardly an impoverished child in Alaska who couldn’t be declared “neglected” at some point.
Any call to OCS, even an anonymous call by someone with an ax to grind, must be investigated if the allegations meet this incredibly broad definition. Yet the UAA researchers claim even calls that are screened out may well be child abuse.
On the contrary, with a definition this broad it’s no wonder that 76 percent of the reports that are screened in wind up unsubstantiated. The researchers argue that’s because caseworkers wrongly label some cases unfounded. Undoubtedly that’s true — sometimes. But in Alaska, as in most states, to “substantiate” a case a worker need only believe, in her own mind, that it is slightly more likely than not that the child was maltreated. So it’s no wonder that the only national study to second-guess these decisions found that workers are two to six times more likely to wrongly substantiate a case than to wrongly label it unfounded.
All of this created a system that does enormous damage to children it is supposed to help.
• It traumatizes children taken needlessly from everyone loving and familiar. Many will be moved from home to home, emerging years later unable to love or trust anyone. Two studies comparing more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes typically did better later in life even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care.
• Many children are taken from safe homes only to be placed at enormous risk in foster care. Several studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.
• And, as noted above, all the time, money and effort wasted on all that needless investigating and needless foster care is, in effect, stolen from children in real danger. That may explain the high rate of re-abuse in Alaska.
Another possible explanation: A state that is quick to label anything and everything child abuse will be quick to label anything and everything re-abuse. If you confuse a family’s poverty with “neglect” and six months later the family is still poor, you are likely to label that family neglectful again.
There’s no reliable way to compare rates of re-abuse among the states. But if the UAA researchers insist on doing it anyway, I’ll point out that rates of re-abuse in Illinois and Alabama are lower than in Alaska.
So the real lesson of this study is the lesson Alaska has been ignoring for decades. The take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe. Alaska needs to learn from states that have rebuilt their systems to emphasize safe, proven programs to keep families together.
Richard Wexler is executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org
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