With Foster Care Cases Up, Lawmakers Consider Funding Triage

The Walker administration is pushing for more funding for the Office of Children’s Services, in response to the growing number of foster children in the system.

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A line added to the governor’s new budget would accept $1 million in one-time federal funding that could be used to add more front-line social workers. OCS Director Christy Lawton described it as a life-or-death situation when questioned by Anchorage Democrat Les Gara at a House Finance committee hearing on Thursday.

GARA: Christy, did you say ‘die,’ or did I misunderstand that?

LAWTON: I did say, ‘die.’ Kids die from fatalities related to child abuse and neglect.

Since Gov. Bill Walker first introduced his budget, the number of foster children in Alaska has grown from 2,400 to 2,500. Meanwhile, the Office of Children’s Services is operating with 25 percent of its front-line positions vacant, and with each worker’s caseload at double the recommended average.

Finance Co-Chair Mark Neuman, a Republican from Big Lake, expressed concern about the staffing problems at OCS. But he also had reservations that the state was growing the department with funding that might disappear.

“So, we’re adding 10 positions here, because we’re getting temporary funding for a year,” said Neuman. “Well, we don’t know if we’re going to get those bonus funds in future years.”

Budget Director Pat Pitney said the governor’s office was willing to fund the new positions with savings found elsewhere in the department.

“This is a million dollars of that $92 million savings that has already been extracted from this department in this one single year to do something for a small population of very in-need people,” said Pitney.

In addition to holding committee hearings, the Republican legislative leadership is continuing its negotiations with the Democratic minority and with Walker over the new budget.

While the Legislature is scheduled to reconvene its special session in Juneau on Tuesday, they plan to immediately gavel in and out without taking action because a budget deal has not been finalized.