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Posts from the ‘advocacy’ Category

Does Alaska CRP make a difference?

Headshot of Diwakar Vadapalli, Ph.D.
By Diwakar Vadapalli, Ph.D.

Chair, Alaska Citizen Review Panel

Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage

I have been the Chair of Alaska Citizen Review Panel (CRP) for more than four years now. The panel’s job is complicated and comes with considerable responsibilities, yet understanding the significance of the CRP’s role in protecting children has made the volunteer experience both rewarding and inspiring. However, recruiting others to serve on the panel has been difficult due to a lack of information on the role of the CRP in general, as well as the responsibilities of panel members more specifically. Potential members often have three main questions – What is the CRP? What does it do? What difference has it made?

The first question is relatively simple to answer. CRP is mandated by Congress as a mechanism to encourage members of the general public to participate in improving the effectiveness of child protection services (CPS) in their respective states. Every state must have at least one CRP, and the panels are primarily administered and funded under the authority of the state governments.

The second question becomes more complicated because of a CRP’s extremely broad mandate. CRPs have three main functions – review, outreach, and advocacy. Simply put, a CRP reviews the policies, procedures, and practices of a state’s CPS agencies; reaches out to families and communities to assess the impact of those policies, procedures, and practices; and recommends any necessary changes in those policies, procedures, and practices.

After four years of leading the panel, it is clear that doing all this is anything but simple. It requires clarity of purpose, adequate staff and financial resources, willing partnerships with the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) and other stakeholder agencies, and, most importantly, dedicated volunteer time. The panel made a lot of progress in clarifying its purpose, and its partnerships with OCS and other stakeholder groups are constructive and promising. The panel could use more than the current budget allocation of $100,000, but any increase seems improbable in the current fiscal climate. The last challenge, however, – dedicated volunteer time – has been the most difficult. Recruiting and retaining volunteers is challenging because the CRP’s work can be very technical, contentious, and at times, disillusioning.

So, naturally, with all that is expected of a CRP, volunteers wonder if all their effort makes any difference. Does CRP make a difference? I have been trying to answer this question since I discovered the panel’s work back in 2011. I was a new faculty member at the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), trying to understand the complicated world of Alaska’s OCS. In one of my many searches, I found the CRP’s website. The panel was just beginning its 11th year of work.

Back in 2004 – 2006, before I left Alaska to get my Ph.D., I was an Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) worker in Sleetmute, in Western Alaska. My caseload included about 10 – 15 children in and out of custody at any time, and life was busy. Aniak was the closest OCS field office. Bethel also had an OCS field office, but along with the office in Aniak, they were required to report to the Wasilla Regional Office. It was strange having to work with OCS staff in the Mat-Su Valley to serve children and families living in our region. Many of us often wondered how administrators from a relatively urban location that existed entirely within the road system, and who had likely not been to villages in Western Alaska, could make meaningful and culturally appropriate decisions that significantly impacted the families we served. But, as a local ICWA worker, it was one of those high-level administrative decisions beyond my control, even though it had a direct impact on my ability to do my job. When I came back to Alaska five years later, in 2011, OCS had five regions. The Western Region was created in 2010, with its headquarters in Bethel.

When I found the CRP in 2011, I read through all its annual reports since 2002. It was strange to see that the panel repeated its annual recommendations, sometimes for several years. OCS responded in writing each year since 2005, but it is hard to tell if the recommendations were implemented, or even seriously considered. In some cases, changes happened at OCS, but it was unclear if the change was a result of a CRP recommendation, or if it was just a happy coincidence. One such change was the creation of the Western Region. CRP first recommended it in 2006. The panel made a very strong case for it in 2008. And repeated the recommendation in 2009. Each time, OCS’ written response was nonchalant at best. And then, suddenly, the Western Region was created in 2010, with no acknowledgement of any connection between the CRP’s recommendation and the actual decision.

I called the CRP in early 2012 to better understand how it works, and if the CRP’s recommendations had anything to do with the creation of the Western Region. The panel at the time was very focused on getting the necessary staffing and resources for the new regional office in Bethel, and was in need of new members with ground-level experience in the Western Region. With my previous experience in Sleetmute, I was a perfect fit, and joined the panel. I did not have the time to worry if the panel made a difference in the past, and began to worry if the panel was currently making a difference. Within a year, I found myself to be the Chair of the panel.

Over the last five years, many people asked me if the CRP ever made a difference. News reporters, legislators, service professionals, OCS employees, current CRP members, folks from across the nation, and my students – they all asked. I kept looking for the best answer, but could not find a better example than the creation of the Western Region. So, I went back to that recommendation and dug a little deeper. From CRP presentations to House Health and Social Services (HSS) Committee, CRP annual reports, OCS written responses, and a couple of informal interviews, below seems to be the story of how it happened over the five-year period from 2006 to 2010:

  • 2006: The CRP recommended that OCS create a fifth region for the first time. It was a transition year at OCS with a new commissioner for the department, and a new deputy commissioner at OCS. The recommendation was brushed aside citing the transition.
  • 2007: The 2007 CRP report did not include a recommendation to create a fifth region.
  • 2008: Late in 2007, OCS proposed to move the Social Services Manager V position from Bethel to Wasilla. The position was vacant at the time. A group of OCS frontline workers from the Bethel office approached the CRP, very concerned about the lack of support and understanding from the regional office in Wasilla, and the devastating effect this move would have on the Bethel office’s relationships with tribal partners. CRP contacted local agency partners of OCS in Bethel and in the region, and received more than 30 letters of support for the creation of an entirely separate region, just like the CRP recommended in 2006. Subsequently, CRP’s 2008 annual report included a lengthy analysis of various perspectives and data, making a strong case for the creation of a fifth service region with Bethel as its headquarters. OCS’ written response to the 2008 recommendation downplayed the need for a fifth region, and assured all that a new staffing pattern would address these concerns.
  • 2009: CRP’s annual report essentially repeated the recommendation, citing all the sources from previous year, making an equally passionate case. OCS’ response, for the first time, acknowledges CRP’s effort on this front. However, OCS reminded CRP that there were “other” priorities at that time.
  • 2010: CRP’s presentation to the House HSS Committee in February that year could not have been more passionate. The panel described the Bethel office as in complete disarray, barely meeting its legal and statutory responsibilities. The Director of OCS, in response to the CRP presentation, mentioned that a plan to create a fifth region was in the works, but due to the continued increase of population in the Mat-Su Valley, OCS had to prioritize development of the Wasilla office. Five months later, in June that year, CRP’s annual report acknowledged the creation of the Western Region, and noted that it was pleased to see the outcome of a multi-year effort. OCS did not mention the creation of the Western Region in its response.

OCS went through an extensive federal review in 2009, and prepared a plan to address the areas that the review identified for improvement. Neither the federal review nor the OCS’ plan had any mention of a fifth region. OCS’ five-year Child and Family Services Plan for the years 2010 – 2014 did not mention any plans to create a fifth region. None of the other OCS’ reports from those years prior to 2010 had any mention of plans to create of a fifth region.

After the Western Region was created in 2010, OCS’ documents never explained the creation in any manner, nor acknowledged CRP’s effort in the matter. Other than a brief comment in the 2010 CRP annual report that the panel was pleased with the outcome, the CRP just moved on to other challenges. If you do not know that CRP exists, or did not take the time to read through the annual reports, you would never know that CRP was involved in this effort. I spoke to a few contemporary sources to check if there were other strong advocates, unrelated to the CRP’s effort. I could not find any. I may have missed something here, and I trust someone reading this will correct me as necessary.

Nevertheless, let us just pause and think about it – the Alaska CRP is a small group of volunteers, less than 10 members during those years. They had less than $100,000 per year, for some staff support. This small group changed the structure of OCS, and redefined the way services are delivered to families and communities in a major part of the state. They were persistent, focused, and dedicated.

So, to answer the last of the three questions – did the CRP make a difference? – HUGE! It is not often that a small group of volunteers change the course of a major bureaucratic agency. This is exactly what Congress had in mind when they wanted regular citizens, not just child protection bureaucrats, to play an “integral role” in child protection services. The story of the creation of OCS’ Western Region is a perfect example of what Congress wanted CRPs to do.

And, by the way, this is not the only impact. I hope people will take the time to read through the CRP annual reports and OCS responses. They are all available on the panel’s website at www.crpalaska.org. Of course, do not be surprised if you have to dig deep like I did to find the actual impact CRP may have had. It is almost never acknowledged.

If you are wondering how such a small group of volunteers can have such a significant impact, much credit goes to Congress’ vision for the CRP. Before there were CRPs, many states were experimenting with citizen groups. Based on the success of these groups, Congress designed the CRPs, and required every state to have at least one CRP. Some states, like Alaska, went further and enacted their own laws for CRPs. Beyond the vision from Congress, and beyond federal and state statutes, a lot of credit goes to the CRP members in Alaska, for the persistence, commitment, and focus that resulted in the creation of the Western Region. Thanks to their efforts, children and families in Western Alaska have a better shot at being protected from child maltreatment.

The CRP can be a powerful mechanism if we all use it, and use it effectively. There are many ways to contribute. Join the panel, be a resource person, contribute to its work indirectly, and utilize its products. Visit the panel’s website, or contact the panel coordinator for further information.

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Investing in ACT

Grants to help ACT hire development director, advance children’s health care

Thank you to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for their recent investment in the work of Alaska Children’s Trust (ACT).

The Murdock Charitable Trust recently provided ACT with a three-year capacity grant that will allow us to add a development director to our team. The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust was created by the will of the late Melvin J. Murdock and they provide grants to organizations that seek to strengthen the region’s educational and cultural base in creative and sustainable ways. This opportunity will allow ACT to strengthen our external relations and help grow our resources to effectively prevent child abuse and neglect.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation has included Alaska in a multistate effort called The Finish Line Project to help secure health care coverage for all children in the United States. The Foundation supports advocacy organizations that work in states with the potential to significantly advance children’s coverage. Finish Line grantees receive financial support and communications and policy-related technical assistance to make a difference in their state. ACT is excited to work with this team of advocates to ensure Alaska’s children grow up in safe, stable and nurturing communities.

Watch our website, Facebook, e-newsletter and blog for future updates on these and other ACT efforts!

Help Shape the Next Decade of Healthy People!

healthy peopleThe U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is soliciting written comments on the proposed framework for Healthy People 2030 that was developed by the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives for 2030 (Committee).

This framework includes the Healthy People 2030 vision, mission, foundational principles, plan of action, and overarching goals — and it will guide the selection and prioritization of objectives for Healthy People 2030.

Members of the public are invited to submit comments on the proposed framework from June 27 through September 29, 2017.

Learn more and submit your comments today!

Why Alaska nonprofits need to pay attention to the healthcare debate

Note from Alaska Children’s Trust: The Foraker Group is a statewide organization dedicated to supporting Alaska nonprofits, including ACT. We wanted to share this article from their blog on why healthcare is critical to many of the nonprofits we as Alaskans support and depend on.

Last night was one of many tense nights in the ongoing debate about healthcare in our country. There is a lot at stake for getting it right, and no easy solution for Alaskans.

One sliver of hope was the impact that many individuals and organizations in our state had when they raised their voices to engage in a way forward to a healthcare solution. I am proud to see so many Alaska nonprofits urge the U.S. Senate to engage in a clear, bipartisan process. We all need to unite in the goal of providing access to quality, affordable healthcare coverage to more Americans.

If your organization has been on the sidelines so far, there are still many opportunities in the coming weeks and months to engage. Here are 3 reasons to come to the table:

  1. Charitable nonprofits make up 12 percent of the workforce in urban Alaska and more than 50 percent in rural Alaska. In short, nonprofit organizations are an economic engine in communities throughout the state – and particularly in rural areas. Healthcare organizations represent the largest employers in Alaska’s nonprofit sector.
  2. Every Alaskan will feel an impact from these decisions. In particular, the people served by health and human services nonprofits are deeply affected by the legislation – especially those who rely on Medicaid or receive insurance through the individual market. Without thoughtful legislation, Alaskans will be in greater need – and we as organizations will not be able to fill the gaps.
  3. The ability of the nonprofit sector to offer health insurance coverage has an impact on every hire we make. Often it is the “make or break” decision for people who agree to take a job or stay in their job. Alaska’s nonprofits need to provide quality, affordable health insurance to recruit and retain talent.

The road ahead is going to be long. We all need to raise our voices to get to a bipartisan solution that benefits all Alaskans. We applaud the efforts of many nonprofits leaders who have raised their voice – it is an issue that affects ALL of us.

Alaska CARES: Coming Together to Help Kids Heal After Abuse

By Bryant Skinner, Alaska CARES Manager

Bryant Skinner head shot

Bryant Skinner, Alaska CARES

According to the Child Welfare League of America, Alaska consistently has one of the top five rates of child abuse in the United States. In Alaska last year, at least 8,000 children were physically or sexually abused, and this represents only reported cases[i].

Adverse childhood experiences like these cause toxic levels of stress that can strain and weaken children’s health and development, and can lead to lifelong social, emotional and cognitive impairments. Often these impairments result in the adoption of high-risk behaviors, disease, disability and social problems. In fact, children experiencing trauma are 49 percent more likely as adults to be unemployed and 92 percent more likely to earn less than $20,000 annually. Child trauma contributes to 60 percent experiencing frequent mental distress into adulthood. Additionally, the impacts of repeated adverse experiences can even lead to early death.

The statistics are grim, but we don’t have to let our children become statistics. Studies show that doing just two simple things can help children grow and thrive:

  1. First, we can invest in primary prevention models that reduce children’s exposure to trauma, or sustained, severe adversity.
  2. Second, we can support early intervention that helps children heal when traumas are experienced, and support children developing resiliency through positive, healthy, supportive relationships.

Alaska CARES is one program that specializes in the second strategy. Alaska CARES is a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a comprehensive, child-centered program based in a facility where victim-advocate, law enforcement, child protection, tribal health, forensic medicine, and mental health professionals are co-located and work together in cases of child abuse.

In the old model of care, kids making a report of harm would have to go to several adult-centered locations to tell their story over and over, which was counterproductive to the child’s healing. The benefit of the CAC model is that it brings all those services together under one roof in a secure environment, designed for the privacy and dignity of young patients. Together, the multi-disciplinary team at Alaska CARES makes sure children feel safe and supported as they come forward to courageously tell their story.

One such child, we’ll call her Kimi, literally illustrates the healing power of early intervention.

Kimi was just 8 years old when she was the victim of sexual abuse by her neighbor. At the time she experienced the abuse she knew something was wrong and worked up the courage to tell the perpetrator “NO,” and then left the room. But her little sister was left with the offender. She found the courage to tell someone about the abuse and an appointment was set for her to be evaluated at Alaska CARES.

angerIt was determined during her visit that seeing a mental health therapist at Alaska CARES would be essential to starting the healing process. The first picture Kimi created (right) was completed during the first two weeks of her therapy. “Anger, Hurt, Sad, Guilt, Nervous, Scared” were the words Kimi used for this painting. She used all of the colors that she didn’t like as she began to process the trauma she experienced. 

guilt

“Guilt” was how Kimi described her painting after six months of therapy (left). Yet, her therapist noted that she was much more present in her session and no longer withdrawn! Although these colors look dark, they were colors that she actually liked and she placed an X to represent “Danger” or “Do not enter,” similar to a poison bottle. She labeled this drawing “Guilt,” which was significant in her progress toward being able to identify and resolve the more specific emotion relating to leaving her sister behind with the abuser.

peace

After one year of care at Alaska CARES, “Peace” was what Kimi called this painting (right). Kimi, her sister and her family were able to work through many emotions and develop tools to manage their feelings and build resiliency. Because Kimi was brave and disclosed the incident, her offender was held accountable for his actions. The care she received in her healing journey helped change the trajectory of Kimi’s life, her sister’s life and the health and resiliency of their entire family.

The issue of child abuse is a moral, social and human issue that impacts our entire community. The earlier the intervention, the better the intervention, and the more likely it is that we can help kids like Kimi as they grow up into adulthood. Alaska CARES demonstrates what is possible when professionals, community members and government agencies work together to support children.

If you would like more information about Alaska CARES, or if you know someone who might be helped by the services of Alaska CARES, visit their website.

[i] http://alaska.providence.org/locations/c/cares/abusefacts

 

 

 

 

“Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe.”

By Mary Johnson and Natalie Norberg

“Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe.”

This is the vision statement for a five-year strategic plan created to address the disparities that Alaska Native children experience in the child welfare system. Today over 3,000 children are in the Alaska foster care system. More than half of these children are Alaska Native. This disparity is unacceptable.

blueberry boy
Recognizing that no one government agency or Tribal entity can solve this problem alone, the “Transforming Child Welfare Outcomes for Alaska Native Children Strategic Plan 2016-2020” was created as the result of a passionate and collaborative process which included numerous Tribal, state and community partners over many months. Participants talked openly and frankly about how to solve problems, reduce barriers and promote children being served closest to home within the context of their Tribe and culture whenever possible.

A personal account from a non-native foster parent:

With her little hand in mine, the two of us slowly walk down the ferry ramp into the bowels of the Le Conte, one of the oldest and smallest vessels that make up the fleet of inter-island ferries of Southeast Alaska’s Marine Highway. We are blasted by that familiar smell of salt water, marine diesel and car exhaust that permeates the parking level of the ferry before we ascend the several flights of stairs to the passenger level of the ferry. I feel weighted down as I struggle to carry the squirming child along with the numerous other packs and totes I am lugging that contain snacks and toys to keep an active toddler occupied for the four hour ferry trip. For Susie this is simply another day of her short life, where every day brings some kind of wonderment. When you are 2 years old, nothing is mundane; an ordinary walk to the park is a delight. For me, however, this day, this trip, feels far from joyful. In fact my mood feels like the dense heavy, gray clouds that press down on the forested islands we pass, layers and layers of suffocating gray.

Susie is 2.3 years old, a beautiful Alaska Native child with healthy rosy cheeks that are just beginning to shed their baby fat. She has soft, long, jet black shiny hair. Susie has been in state foster care since she was 11 months old. I am her 3rd foster home. Susie and I bonded quickly. I couldn’t wait for my work day to end and to pick her up from preschool. Although I did not ever encourage her to call me mommy, she quickly learned from her peers, to reach up her arms for me and call me mama. Susie loves to be read to, loves “Dora the Explorer”, and bubble baths. She is smart, perceptive and talkative. Susie could easily be that little girl I have always wanted as my own. But she doesn’t belong to me or my white culture. She comes from her own rich heritage, of which she must do her part to revitalize and pass-on.

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed 40 years ago by congress as a measure to attempt to stem the tide of a disproportionate number of American Indian/Alaskan Native children entering state foster care systems and being adopted by white families; these children would forever be lost to their families, Tribes, communities, and culture. Today, both nationally and in Alaska, racial disproportionality continues to exist at alarmingly high rates. In 2016, while comprising less than 20% of the population, Alaskan Native children comprise over 55% of the children in foster care in Alaska.

While it is easy to place blame on the child welfare system for the years it has taken to implement ICWA as it was intended; data shows widespread disparities of Alaska Native/American Indian people involved in all service sectors of society.  In order to follow the vision Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe, there remains a need to balance both a recognition of the impact of historical trauma as well as the strengths of families we serve. Many professionals who have the responsibility to help vulnerable families may have unconscious bias about Alaska Native culture. These professionals are in positions to make life changing decisions for the family. Yet, without thoughtful and continuous self-evaluation, it is human nature to fall into systemic racism and follow the practice of favoring white, non-relatives over Alaskan Native relatives.

The ferry takes us to her island village, to her mother’s family, where she will be permanently placed with her maternal uncle and his family; a home, where she fits and belongs. Her hair and skin color matches theirs. She will be cuddled, loved and called “baby.” Their home is different than mine. It smells different, and is smaller, more crowded. Instead of having her own bedroom, as she did at my house, Susie will share a room with her brother who sometimes lives in the house and her teen-aged cousin. There is a chest freezer in the living room. Susie is terrified. She clings to me and won’t let go.  

Not too long ago, I feel confident that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) would have let me keep Susie forever. The caseworker and I could have come up with many different “reasons” for why Susie should be adopted by me; and the white judge, white attorneys and white guardian ad litems, who make such decisions, would have nodded and agreed. Times have changed. And this is a good thing. Having been a social worker first, and a foster parent second, my head has known this long before my heart; but my heart is getting there. The spirit and intent of ICWA maybe, just maybe, are beginning to be embraced.

The privilege of working in the field of child welfare is having the honor of being a part of a family’s path to healing. In the example above Susie is in a home where she is learning how to live in her Alaska Native culture and it will be one less battle she will have as she grows up, a child from a traumatic beginning, as she pieces together her identity.

A year later I go back to her village and visit Susie. She is happy and thriving. She is now three years old and doesn’t remember me at all. Somewhere deep in her mind, seeing me may trigger a vague sense of familiarity – a sense of knowing she was well cared for, nurtured on her journey to get back to her family’s people. And that is truly what matters – that I was a vehicle to help her return, intact, healthy and able to rejoin her people. My heart truly believes this.  

Find the full “Transforming Child Welfare Outcomes for Alaska Native Children Strategic Plan 2016-2020” report on the OCS website at http://dhss.alaska.gov/ocs/Documents/Publications/pdf/AK-Transforming-Child-Welfare-Outcomes_StrategicPlan.pdf.

About the authors:

Mary Johnson is the Child Protection Program Manager with the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks.

Natalie Norberg is currently employed by the State of Alaska, Department of Health and Social Services; she is a former OCS case worker and foster parent.

Take Action for Alaska’s Kids

Voices for Alaska’s Children Action Center

Voices FB profileA few weeks ago we announced the website for Voices for Alaska’s Children, a new grassroots, community movement that makes it easy for you to speak up on issues important to children and families in your community.

We hope you’ve had a chance to check out the new site. We especially want to be sure you’ve explored the Voices action center, where you can:

  • Find – and contact – your elected officials. Sometimes the hardest thing about speaking up is knowing who to speak to! The Voices action center makes it easy to get the ear of the right decision makers. You can not only find your local, state and federal representatives, but you can also contact them right from the website!
  • Get the inside scoop on proposed legislation, track existing bills and read up on the latest news related to children and families in Alaska.
  • Make your voice count by following tried-and-true advocacy tips and guidelines.

The Voices website is also the access point for KIDS COUNT, the premier source for data on child and family wellbeing both in Alaska and nationwide. Through our KIDS COUNT data center, you can:

  • Access data from the most trusted sources, find the most relevant statistics and compare your community with others.
  • Use intuitive visual tools to easily create customizable maps, graphs and tables.
  • Connect with data experts at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and throughout the KIDS COUNT grantee network.
  • Expand your reach through social media.
  • Encourage policies that support smart decisions about children and families.

Ready to raise your voice? Visit the Voices action center now and subscribe to our email list so we can keep you updated on news and ways you can get involved.

Want to support the work of Voices? Please consider making a donation to support our efforts.

Because even the littlest voices deserve to be heard.

 

Even the littlest voices deserve to be heard

Voices for Alaska’s Children makes it easy to speak up for Alaska’s kids

Voices FB profileWant to speak up on how potential new revenue sources impact Alaska families?

Have an opinion on how affordable health care is important to Alaska’s kids?

Have ideas about how to improve public education for our children?

There are so many issues and so many needs in our state, it can seem overwhelming. Hopeless. Helpless.

But it’s not. You have a voice. You can speak up. You can make a difference. We can help.

Voices for Alaska’s Children is a brand new grassroots, community movement supported by Alaska Children’s Trust and other community partners that makes it easy for you to turn up the volume on the issues you care about – whether that’s the PFD, health care, public education or anything else affecting you, your children, your clients or your community.

Through the Voices website, you can:

While you’re there, be sure to subscribe for Voices email updates so we can stay in touch on important issues and efforts. You can also follow Voices on Facebook.

Speak up! Join your voice with other Alaskans and let’s raise the volume on issues touching the lives of Alaska’s children, youth and families. Because even the littlest voices deserve to be heard.