Borough wants to renegotiate salary-sharing deal for state OCS caseworker

In 2022, after years of community advocacy for the position, the state Office of Children’s Services (OCS) put a caseworker in Wrangell. However, borough officials will reconsider covering half the cost of the state position, citing budgetary concerns and questions about whether the position meets the community’s needs.

OCS seeks to protect and advocate for minors in unsafe living situations. Before caseworker Jennifer Ridgeway transferred to Wrangell from Petersburg last year, the borough had not had an OCS caseworker in the community since 2008, due to budget cuts and staffing allocations.

OCS has chronic staffing issues that were only exacerbated by the pandemic. Staff turnover had risen from 30% to 60% by early 2022, Juneau public radio station KTOO reported last year.

Former assistant principal Bob Davis, former mayor Stephen Prysunka and others worked to get partial state funding for the position. The borough agreed to pay half of the caseworker’s salary, benefits and other expenses — a $53,000 contribution — and provide office space in the Public Safety Building.

No other Alaska municipalities help pay for their caseworkers. This state position is usually state-funded.

“This agreement is unique and there are no other ones like it in Alaska currently,” wrote Brian Studstill, communications director for the Alaska Department of Family and Community Services, in an email. “We have had similar agreements with community partners around Alaska in the past.”

At the June 6 assembly work session on the budget, officials questioned whether they should be spending borough funds on a caseworker who serves large swaths of Southeast. “We’re paying half the cost,” said Borough Manager Jeff Good. “All the other communities still get to use that, but they’re not paying.”

Ridgeway travels around the region to advocate for minors, including to Kake and Prince of Wales Island. She declined to comment on the issue.

“We don’t have the caseload here to support a full-time person,” said Police Chief Tom Radke in an interview after the work session. “She handles a very wide area for that agency. If we’re paying half her wages, it’s 20 hours a week in Wrangell. Do we have 20 hours a week in Wrangell? I don’t think so.”

He had wanted the OCS representative to function as the community’s social worker, connecting both children and adults with resources. OCS, however, is focused specifically on child welfare. “It was something we tried, it was something we felt was important to the community, but it’s just not what we thought it would be,” he said.

That said, Radke stressed Ridgeway’s value to Wrangell and the region. Ideally, he explained, the borough would renegotiate its agreement with the state and pay an amount commensurate with Wrangell’s caseload while keeping the OCS staffer in town. “She’s done a good job,” he said. “That position is needed, it should be funded … but Wrangell shouldn’t pay half.”

Good explained, “it would be figuring out with the state what would happen if we don’t fund our half of the MOU (memorandum of understanding)” that allowed the caseworker to come to Wrangell.

Davis, who retired and left Wrangell last year, was disappointed to hear that the OCS representative might once again leave Wrangell. He had taught students in the Wrangell School District since 1994 and “considered myself, as a teacher, pretty well-versed of the troubles and social lives of my kids,” he said. “I was absolutely shocked when I stepped into that principal position at how much more there was than I had ever imagined before.”

His experiences as assistant principal motivated him to work for a local OCS position. “I spent a lot of time on the phone talking and pleading and begging and screaming and yelling trying to get help,” he said.

Because of OCS’s staffing issues, caseworkers often took days to arrive in town, even for situations that were urgent, Davis recalled. “For me, if we had somebody that was there in Wrangell, our kids could get help,” he said. “I was very pleased with getting somebody there. That happened just a few months before I left … It’s kind of a gut punch to me to hear that they’re talking about giving that position up.”

After Ridgeway stepped into the role, Davis saw significant improvements in service for the town. “She was a go-getter,” he said. “I got more help the last couple months she was there than I’d gotten the last year and a half.”

The assembly is scheduled to vote on a final budget on June 27.

 

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