FAIRBANKS — Severe staff turnover problems are impeding the Alaska Office of Children’s Services ability to operate effectively, especially in rural Alaska, the program’s director told lawmakers on Tuesday.
OCS Director Christy Lawton told a House Finance Subcommittee that a continual vacancy rate of nearly 30 percent among the agency’s front-line workers presents a major challenge for the high-stress office.
The meeting is the second in a three-day series held in Fairbanks on the Department of Health and Social Services, which at $2.6 billion accounts for the most expensive department in the state budget. The meeting is aimed at getting the subcommittee better acquainted with the budget before lawmakers begin their 90-day session.
OCS has long been the target of criticisms about its handling of cases, especially in rural Alaska, where there are a number of allegations of sexual abuse by foster parents.
When asked about the office’s budget and what problems stand between it and accomplishing its job, Lawton said it’s largely because of the more than 80 front-line worker positions that are vacant.
“The biggest overarching problem is our ability to hire, train and replace employees. That impacts our ability to keep kids out of foster care, and we don’t do an intervention as well as we should have,” she said. “That’s the biggest overarching issue that trickles into everything.”
Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, acknowledged the high stress of the job but asked what was being done.
“Is there an answer? Do you have a five-year plan that you think will improve that employee retention?” he said. “Other departments have 30-, 40-year employees, but they don’t have the stress. We don’t have the answers up here, and we don’t deal with that every day.”
Lawton said the office is trying a range of new attempts to keep rural OCS agents on the job, but with mixed results. Many issues like housing, culture shock and the job’s stressful nature make traditional retention programs more difficult.
She said one thing has helped — higher pay.
“We’re seeing some positive movement in the retention rate due to salary increases for position. We have 200-plus staff who received more money who are thinking of staying longer,” she said. “But are they going to have an impact a year from now? Are we going to go from a 30 percent vacancy rate to a 20 percent rate to a 15 percent rate? It’s impossible to say.”
The meeting also touched on a other issues ranging from the cost of the program to anecdotal examples of its shortcomings. The lawmakers, at times, took combative tones with Lawton, especially when it came to lawsuits against the department.
The third and final meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. today and will focus on the impacts the federal budget sequester will have on the Department of Health and Social Services. The subcommittee also will take time to discuss and form recommendations for the upcoming year.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 and follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.