State recruiting for children's services worker in Wrangell

After not having a state Office of Children’s Services caseworker in town for more than a decade, Wrangell could have a staffer here by spring.

The Legislature last year added funding for the position to the budget and, unlike 2020, Gov. Mike Dunleavy did not veto the money for the Wrangell caseworker.

The borough helped the deal last year by offering to pick up half of the expenses for the staff position, along with donating office space. The borough offered the same deal in 2020 when the governor vetoed the spending along with other appropriations, citing a tight budget for the cuts.

Though the state budget year started last July 1, the Department of Health and Social Services did not start advertising for the Wrangell job until last month, with an April 18 deadline to apply. The department had been working with the borough since last fall to figure out details of the cost sharing.

The community, however, may have its long-awaited caseworker soon.

“An employee in another Southeast office has expressed interest in transferring into the position through a formal lateral transfer,” Clinton Bennett, department spokesman, reported in an email Feb. 2. “This will most likely be occurring very soon.”

As with most all state spending, funding for the position will expire at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, but the governor included funding for the new Wrangell position in the budget he presented to legislators for the next fiscal year.

The proposed budget, which is under legislative review, includes the same cost sharing with the borough.

In addition to contributing toward the staffing costs, the borough will provide office space in the Public Safety Building, Borough Manager Jeff Good said last week. “We’ve actually just sent the paperwork” on the cost sharing to the borough attorney to review, Good said.

The school district has strongly supported stationing an Office of Children’s Services caseworker in town. Bob Davis, lead teacher and assistant principal for the high school and middle school, last year called it “absolutely crucial.”

A lot of the problems children have in school relate back to their home situations, where a caseworker could intervene and maybe help, Davis said last year.

A staffer could respond to calls of children in need of aid — including children with emotional issues or in dangerous family situations — assisting the families and protecting the children.

Without a protective services caseworker in town, Wrangell school, health care, police and other officials over the years have been calling the children’s services office in Petersburg or the state’s 1-800 number to get help for youth in crisis.

Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz, who also represents Wrangell, is on the budget-writing House Finance Committee and has been working the issue for the community.

Caseworkers at the Office of Children’s Services have a difficult job, the department said in its budget narrative for legislators: “The agency is experiencing a turnover rate of 59.4% among case-carrying staff and a rate of 44% among all staff. Many exiting staff indicate their top reasons for leaving are workload, lack of competitive salaries, personal safety, and the difficult and traumatic work.”


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