Legislature(2017 - 2018)BUTROVICH 205
03/21/2018 01:30 PM HEALTH & SOCIAL SERVICES
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HB 151-DHSS;CINA; FOSTER CARE; CHILD PROTECTION 1:31:13 PM CHAIR WILSON announced the consideration of HB 151. [SCS CSHB 151(FIN) was before the committee.] 1:31:51 PM CHAIR WILSON opened public testimony. 1:32:07 PM JANINE REEP, Board Member, Facing Foster Care in Alaska, supported HB 151. She said she is an attorney who has worked in the field of child protection for over 30 years. Currently she is a mediator in child protection cases. She knows the child protection system very well. She knows how it is supposed to work and she knows it is not working well. Things are worse now than when she began 30 years ago. She's been around long enough to see youth coming back into the system as parents themselves or more often, incarcerated. The system needs to be fixed. She opined that the bill might look like it is full of lots of little things, but the reality is that each of these sections, if passed into law, can profoundly change a person's life. For example, filling out a foster care application is a daunting task. Under the bill, OCS [Office of Children's Services] would be required to help prospective foster care parents complete application, and there is a deadline for making a decision on an application. She also highlighted the provision for prudent care allowing foster parents to fill out permission forms for field trips or participation on a sports team. It is awkward for youth to go a state agency to have a pink slip signed so they can go on a band trip. It can mean a youth misses out on a network of peers. She said the crux of the bill is caseload limits. She has been saying for decades that nothing will change unless caseloads are statutorily capped. Caseworkers cannot make good decisions for a family when overloaded with cases. A relative search is difficult to do. Families will not share information about relatives if they don't trust someone. Many times healthy relatives are estranged from the family. Unless a caseworker has an ongoing relationship with a family, family placements are difficult to find. She noted that the graph on slide 16 of Representative Gara's presentation reflects the relationship between changes in caseworkers and chances of permanency. She said she has seen that again and again. Progress cannot be made when a social worker is in place for five months and then gone. The case lingers and children languish in the system, often until they're adults. She urged the committee to pass the bill because it is an opportunity to make a real change. She concluded reiterating that until there are lower caseloads, nothing will work. 1:37:54 PM SENATOR MICCICHE noted her 30 years of experience. He asked why none of these issues are getting better. He asked if there is something systemic that is not in the bill. MS. REEP said the turnover is insane and the caseloads have increased. The numbers are outrageous. Social workers are dissatisfied and feel they are doing a terrible job. It is high responsibility and they are not going to stay. A cap on numbers will attract more qualified people. Many social workers are not interested in working for OCS because of the horror stories and the caseloads. If they knew there was a limit and they could actually make a difference in helping families, they'd be applying. MICHAEL JEFFERY, Representing Self, supported HB 151. He has spent 40 years in Barrow, first working with Alaska Legal Services and then as a superior court judge for 32 years. He said part of the work of a superior court judge is Child in Need of Aid cases. He likes many things about HB 151. One of them is training. He hopes that would include fetal alcohol spectrum disorder issues. He said social workers want to do right by these families, but if they are swamped with cases, they can't do it. He realizes that some funding issues go with that, but it's important to have these standards. He loves the parts of the bill about timeliness in foster care license decisions. A family is offering itself. If the application is dropped into the void. That denies the availability of that home and it is also stress for the family. The provisions to have youth participate in their own case planning and the ability of youth and families to do things without checking with a social worker will reduce trauma and long-term damage that can happen from multiple placements and the feeling of being shut out from making any decisions about their situation. 1:43:05 PM ANDREW CUTTING, Program Fellow, Alaska Children's Trust, supported HB 151. He said his agency looks at children across the state and worries about kids who are falling through the cracks. This is a way to move forward with those being left behind. With the high case numbers and maxed out staff, this bill supports front line staff. A lot of research shows the cost of kids revolving through different families. It increases their ACEs [Adverse Childhood Experiences] scores. The cost across the state associated with ACEs scores is more than $450,000,000. Decreasing caseworker loads, providing additional training and support, decreasing the number of kids who cross their desk every day and putting kids in supportive families using the tools in this bill will reduce costs in the long term, even if a few more staff have to be added in the front end. The Children's Trust is a big, big supporter of this bill. 1:44:55 PM TAMAR BEN-YOSEF, Executive Director, All Alaska Pediatric Partnership, supported HB 151. She said the mission of the All Alaska Pediatric Partnership is to improve the health and wellness of all Alaskan children. They consider OCS caseworkers' high caseloads and resulting inability to adequately serve families a significant barrier to children's optimal health. Nearly 3,000 Alaskan children are in out-of-home placement. In some places of the state, workers are managing more than 30 caseloads, which is more than double the national recommendations. About ten percent of children entering the foster care system are under the age of six. The first three to four years of life are when the brain structures that govern personality traits, learning processes and self-regulation skills to deal with stress and emotion are established, strengthened, and made permanent and the nerve connections and nerve transmitter networks form during these critical years. These transmitter networks are influenced by negative environmental conditions, such as child abuse and neglect, violence within the family, and exacerbated by multiple placements. Most children entering the foster care system, especially those entering early on, have not experienced a nurturing, stable environment. The positive experiences created by permanency and a solid relationship with a supportive caregiver are critical in both the short- and long-term development of the child and their ability to participate fully in society. The premature return of a child to the biological parent and the inability of a caseworker to provide families with the attention they need to remain stable, compliant, and safe often result in a return to foster care or ongoing emotional trauma to the child. No less important is that working in such stressful environments creates toxic stress for the caseworker and results in high turnover rates and further negative outcomes for children. Reduced caseloads and additional training will result in a healthier and more supported workforce, leading to more permanency and better outcomes for children. 1:47:50 PM MARK LACKEY, Member, R.O.C.K Mat-Su, Executive Director, CCS Early Learning, supported HB 151. He said he has been a foster parent in the past. He is familiar with the issues that HB 151 addresses. He adopted a child and would estimate that he was in care for 6-8 months longer than needed because of staff turnover. Professionally, CCS Early Learning has seen a steady increase in the percentage of their slots provided for children in foster care. The last school year, 17 percent of total slots were for children in foster care. In 2009, it was six percent. 1:50:05 PM SENATOR BEGICH arrived. MR. LACKEY said they have seen a steady increase in children needing care but until very recently, they have not seen a corresponding increase in staffing at OCS. Wasilla has seen recent staffing increases, which has drastically helped their caseloads. R.O.C.K. Mat-SU has been working closely with OCS on multiple issues. He can already see changes in morale and how responsive staff are and in the level of community engagement. Getting children in and out of the system as quickly as possible requires sufficient staff. 1:51:42 PM ROSALIE REIN, Representing Self, supported HB 151. She said she worked at OCS for seven-and-a-half years and is now developing a social services program for the Fairbanks School District. The high rate of front line turnover leaves OCS with less experienced workers and growing caseloads. The pressure threatens the longevity of the remaining caseworkers. The provision in HB 151 capping caseloads for new caseworkers during the first six months is going to support workers through the steep learning curve. Staff retention is a positive effect of allowing workers to develop a solid skill set early in their OCS careers. Research shows that caseworkers who have social work education, appropriate training, specialized competencies, and greater experience are better able to facilitate permanency. New workers with a full caseload and older workers with a caseload more than twice the national recommendation cannot keep up with adequate support for foster parents, let alone the children and their families. Her testimony is not to convince them to make sad caseworkers happy. It is about ensuring that children and families have access to services in a timely manner, have communication with their worker, and for relatives to be identified so they can provide care for their own family. These services require adequate staffing. 1:54:07 PM RACHEL BEDSWORTH, Statewide Representative, Facing Foster Care in Alaska, supported HB 151. She said she is a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage and aged out of the foster care system when she turned 21 in October. She was in care 12 years and moved through 47 placements. She had nine social workers. There was a time in eighth grade when she did not know who her social worker was. She lived in a foster home for three months where the only food was rice, broccoli, and cheese. Her social workers didn't listen to her because they didn't know her. They need more social workers, so they can give the individual attention that a child needs and deserves. 1:55:29 PM SARAH REDMON, Administrative Director, Facing Foster Care in Alaska, supported HB 151. She said she was in foster care three different times over seven years. She was in 16 different placements in those seven years. She is one of 12 siblings who went into foster care at the same time. During her placement she had no contact with her siblings. She was like a mother for her eight younger siblings. She made sure they went to school, went to bed, and were fed. Not knowing where they were gave her social anxiety and stress. If she had been able to have contact with them, that would have provided some relief. Making sure siblings have contact is her big focus. 1:58:20 PM NATALIA EDWARDS, Member, Facing Foster Care in Alaska, supported HB 151. She said she has been in foster care since February 2012 with 11 placements and somewhere between 6 and 15 social workers. She was separated from four sisters, which caused constant anxiety. She will face repercussions for that the rest of her life. In the past two years she has been in and out of homelessness and has had little to no contact with her social workers. She was homeless because so many social workers changed with no notice; it was hard to track down who would have helped with friends who could have become licensed. It was only when Amanda Metivier [founder of Facing Foster Care in Alaska] became her foster mother that they tracked down her social worker to figure what needed to be done so she could be in a continual safe home with a steady foster parent. If HB 151 had been in effect in the past, it would have helped with the repercussions with her siblings. She would have had more attention in the past six years. 2:00:30 PM ALISON KULAS, Executive Director, Alaska Mental Health Board, Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, supported HB 151. She said the joint mission of her boards is to advocate for programs and services for people with behavioral health disorders, their families, care providers, and communities. They look comprehensively to build healthy and safe environments for Alaskans to reach their individual potential. HB 151 supports the safety and well-being of Alaska's children in state custody. This bill addresses the concern that OCS workers are overworked and their ability to serve families adequately is compromised. Representative Gara's bill will help mitigate the trauma and long-term damage of children who experience multiple placements or who languish in foster care. Instability and neglect cause an increased likelihood of mental health challenges, substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration, public assistance, and unemployment. Decreasing caseloads can help to intervene in this expensive and damaging cycle. Her boards want to make sure that OCS workers are fully trained and equipped to handle the challenges of working with families on their caseloads so that families really get the attention they need to remain stable, compliant, and safe. They need to stabilize the workforce to better serve the needs of families involved in the state's child welfare system. 2:03:01 PM CHAIR WILSON closed public testimony on HB 151. CHAIR WILSON asked what the ratio is of OCS supervisors to caseworkers. 2:03:27 PM CHRISTY LAWTON, Director, Office of Children's Services, Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), testified on HB 151. She said generally in the larger offices, such as Anchorage, Mat-Su, and Fairbanks, supervisors have six to eight employees per unit. The Child Welfare League of America recommends five per supervisor. SENATOR VON IMHOF observed that the tribal compact agreements are just getting off the ground, and asked what impact that will have in taking the burden off employees by lowering caseloads. MS. LAWTON said in the very long run, it will help with caseload size, but in the short-term, there will be lessening of some of the caseload. There are pieces of case management they will be slowly taking on. Initially the focus is helping with relative searches and family contact visitation and doing safety walks through homes in communities where they do not have staff. They are being strategic about what they are taking on and starting to build their infrastructure and capacity. It will be a number of years before they are taking over large numbers of cases. CHAIR WILSON asked the sponsor if he had any closing remarks. 2:05:37 PM REPRESENTATIVE LES GARA, Alaska State Legislature, sponsor of HB 151, said there has been talk about how much this is evidence- based--less turnover, fewer placement changes, less trauma to children, higher success rates of children, fewer children on public assistance, more children in the workforce, more children graduating high school, going to college. What he wants to leave the committee with is the notion that we are closer than ever to fixing the system, but the first step is to have all the members on the team with a good manager and good systems. Drawing a parallel to a baseball team, he said you need a good manager and nine players on the field. Without that, you'll always lose. "We're closer than ever to fixing many, many, many of the problems at OCS." In terms of cost, the transfer of adult public assistance money to OCS last year made it possible to hire 31 additional staff. That is within striking distance of reaching caseload limits that will work, that will reduce turnover rates like they did in New Jersey. REPRESENTATIVE GARA said he wanted to be clear about the fiscal note because there are different ways of writing fiscal notes. Early fiscal notes were $4, $5, and $7 million. The really expensive things were removed from the current fiscal note, but it does assume that the 31 new case workers remain. The cost for that is $1.4 million. The fiscal note last year provided 75 percent of the funding for those workers. He noted that the tradition in this building often has been to fund 75 percent of the cost the first year and 100 percent the next year. The fiscal note is written as a comparison to what is needed in addition to the 31 staff that were hired last year. It is not a comparison to what was in the budget last year. The funds for those 31 workers is in the governor's budget and the House budget. He hopes they remain in the Senate budget. With that, you are within $1.4 million of reach of actually making a huge difference with mentors and the supervisors to get the supervisory caseloads to what Director Lawton and the case workers talked about to reduce the work and reduce the turnover and reduce the waste of money that we have in the system for paying for empty positions. The empty positions I've talked about are hiring somebody who leaves within a year when they have finally learned their job. That's not a wise use of money." 2:09:19 PM CHAIR WILSON said he would hold HB 151 awaiting the answers from DHSS to some outstanding questions.