By Christy Lawton, Director, Office of Children’s Services
The Office of Children’s Services, or OCS, is often one of the most misunderstood organizations in state government. Formerly known as the Division of Family and Youth Services, after Gov. Frank Murkowski changed the name in 2003, the agency’s purpose was further muddled by the removal of the word “family,” leaving the emphasis solely on “children.”
The reality is that the focus is on the family as a whole. The OCS serves families whose children have been determined to be unsafe or at high risk of maltreatment by their parent or caregiver.
Services to families should always be done in the least restrictive, least intrusive manner possible. Decisions regarding needed interventions with families are based on thorough information collection that guides the initial and ongoing assessment of safety and risk.
After an investigation is completed on a report of child abuse, interventions with a family may fall along a continuum, from simple referrals to services; to services offered in the home, while the children remain in the home; to the children being removed and services provided to the entire family.
Because of our statutory duty, the agency and its staff often find themselves in situations where no matter what they do, it’s viewed as wrong by the public. Because of confidentiality, it is most often not known to the public how a decision was made or why. If a child gets hurt, people think we didn’t do our job. If a child is removed short of anything less than serious injuries or near death, some may say we acted too aggressively or were too intrusive in a family’s private matters.
What does all of this mean from a day-to-day perspective? It confirms that child protection workers have very difficult and often misunderstood roles. Keeping kids safe once we know there is a problem is the easier aspect of the job. Knowing when parents have really changed enough to ensure their child can be safe in the care is the most difficult and stressful.
OCS’s primary objective is to ensure the safety of the child and to reduce any further incidents of child maltreatment. Secondary to that, but equally important, is the hardest aspect of agency’s role, which is to work in partnership with the parent(s) to help them remedy the conditions or issues that resulted in the abuse or neglect that brought the family to our attention.
OCS works under a myriad of federal and state statutes that governs 99.9 percent of what we do. These laws ensure that parents are afforded due process to ensure their rights are protected and access to the courts system for judicial review of decisions made by the agency that help to ensure the agency decisions are sound and founded in law. It also seeks to ensure children don’t languish in foster care by limiting the amount of time a parent has to make the kind of meaningful change that would allow for a safe return of their child.
Funding for OCS services comes primarily from state general funds and federal funds at a ratio of about 70/30. Contrary to some theories, neither funding stream incentivizes the removal or the adoption of children we serve. When adoption is the goal, after having proven reunification is not viable, the federal government does provide incentive dollars for states that demonstrate that adoptions are finalized in a timely fashion.
Individual child welfare professionals within the OCS are not paid with respect to the number of families served, children removed, and/or children adopted or children reunified. They are paid to assess child safety, address strengths and deficits in parents’ protective factors, and to work to keep families intact whenever possible.
The 533 dedicated and skilled professionals who make up the Office of Children’s Services are providing a public safety service focused on Alaska’s most vulnerable residents, our children. Staff receive more than 15,000 reports a year and investigate over 9,000 individual reports. In addition, they work to provide effective case management and support to over 3,000 foster children, their parents, their relatives, and foster parents. They also partner with Tribes and work with numerous providers and legal partners.
OCS staff, like law enforcement officers, EMTs and many other safety-related professionals, provide this service often at a sacrifice to themselves and their own families. Unlike these professions that are typically well regarded and publicly supported, the professionals at OCS are sometimes minimized and criticized for doing the job they are legally obligated to do.
Despite these very real and significant challenges, OCS reunites more than half of the children that enter foster care successfully every year and very few of these children reenter the system later.
So, as we look forward to continuing our efforts to ensure a safe, healthy and thriving Alaska for all, I encourage you to look at ways you can ensure children in your community are safe by reporting all suspected abuse or neglect. I also encourage you to look for ways to ensure that the professionals who protect those children are supported, respected and appreciated for the work they do every day to ensure child safety.