Social workers report dramatic increase in child abuse and neglect referrals

Shoes found on the back steps of a house next to a cafe in Scotland. (Creative Commons photo by Dan)

Social workers’ caseloads for child neglect and abuse are dramatically increasing in Southeast, and apparently statewide, according to the head of a regional service provider. Threats to state children’s service workers are also increasing.

Erin Walker-Tolles, executive director of Catholic Community Service in Juneau, testified before the House Finance Committee earlier this month. She asked for more funding to deal with a 59 percent increase in referrals to her nonprofit’s child advocacy center, or CAC. It deals with cases of children who may be victims of abuse and neglect across Southeast.

“It’s dramatic, it’s pervasive and, from what we’ve heard from the other CACs, it is statewide. And I’m here to ask you to consider increasing the funding for CACs statewide,” Walker-Tolles said.

In Juneau, the S.A.F.E. Child Advocacy Center performs forensic interviews and, when necessary, physical examinations for evidence of sexual abuse. It’s one of 13 across the state. Accredited CACs work to minimize the trauma victims experience by sharing their stories and increase the likelihood of successful prosecution. Workers also assist families with navigating the legal system should their case go to trial.

In Southeast, victims usually travel to Juneau from remote communities by plane or ferry to be interviewed by staff. The center operates out of an undisclosed location to protect victims’ identities.

The number of children referred to the center shot up from 97 in 2016 to 154 last year. Half came from outside of Juneau.

S.A.F.E. Child Advocacy Center Program Manager Susan Loesby and Erin Walker-Tolles, executive director of Catholic Community Service, at the CCS building in Juneau. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Program Manager Susan Loseby has worked at the center for six years. She said they’re not sure what caused the increase.

“I would hope that more kids aren’t being abused. It’s just that more people are reporting what they suspect as abuse,” Loseby said.

One thing is clear: They need more people to deal with the workload.

The center has three full-time employees and three on-call nurses who perform medical examinations. Walker-Tolles and Loseby are asking for $77,000 to hire and train an additional staff member.

Loseby said working with children who have been abused and even raped takes a significant toll on staff, especially when they’re constantly on call. Secondary trauma for interviewers is a constant reality, and self-care and time off is key to being able to continue working in the field.

“It’s a lot to digest, hearing all of the disclosures that children are making and then working with the families who are also in trauma,” Loseby said. “It has, of course, increased the hours that we work, it has decreased the time that we can take off to heal and get the respite that we all need.”

The majority of funding for CACs comes from federal welfare grants that the Office of Children’s Services distributes statewide.

Walker-Tolles said despite the costs, the service is desperately needed.

“Ethically it’s the right thing to do. And if you want to talk about money, honestly it’s a cost-savings to the entire community and the state,” Walker-Tolles said. “If these kids are able to heal, be safe, grow up, go to college or school or find a vocation that inspires them and contribute to the economy, instead of falling into despair, failing school, not having job opportunities. The outcomes can be pretty grim.”

Meanwhile, the state’s Office of Children’s Services plans to place security officers at its Kenai and Fairbanks offices. Director of OCS Christy Lawton said the department has seen an increase in threats to workers over the years.

It came to a head in 2015 when the Anchorage office feared an active shooter scenario.

Since then, security personnel have been installed at field offices in Anchorage, Wasilla and Juneau.

“It’s not uncommon to be threatened, it’s not uncommon to be name-called, but when it starts to be people potentially laying hands on our staff that really draws the line,” Lawton said. “Our staff take a lot of abuse, and we do so because we understand the pressure and stress families are under, but there’s a line there and of course worker safety has to be a priority.”

Lawton said the security measures are also an effort to better comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for worker safety.

OCS was fined following an OSHA complaint after a worker was shoved at the Fairbanks office.

They also plan to create a safety officer position based in Anchorage to help coordinate security efforts among the department’s 24 field offices.