Borough assembly votes against funding for children's services caseworker

At its July 25 meeting, the borough assembly decided not to contribute $25,000 to keep a state Office of Children’s Services caseworker in town.

The current in-town caseworker is moving off the island, explained Borough Manager Jeff Good, so the position would be left vacant regardless of whether the borough contributed funds.

“It doesn’t sound like (OCS) is really excited about trying to bring somebody back here to fill the position,” he said. “I’m not sure what we get out of spending this money and then trying to go after OCS to bring the position back here.”

Caseworker Jennifer Ridgeway declined to comment.

“OCS leadership is currently evaluating and discussing how to handle the vacancy, but we are confident in our ability to continue supporting the Wrangell community effectively in the future,” Brian Studstill, communications director for the Alaska Department of Family and Community Services, wrote in an email on Monday.

Ridgeway transferred from Petersburg to Wrangell in February 2022 after community advocates argued that having a caseworker in town would improve services for minors in unsafe living situations. However, to get the state to reopen an office in Wrangell, the borough had to enter a cost-sharing agreement. The borough agreed to pay half the salary, benefits and expenses — $53,000 last year. Good negotiated the sum down to $25,000 for this year.

Though the position was based in Wrangell, the caseworker traveled around Southeast. Borough officials felt that the agreement left Wrangell footing the bill for services that other communities inordinately benefited from.

Wrangell was the only community in Alaska that helped pay for its OCS caseworker last year, though other places have entered into similar cost-sharing agreements in the past.

When Ridgeway leaves and the office is vacant, services will be provided by phone or visits from other offices, the same as for years before the OCS Wrangell position was filled. The office was closed more than a decade ago amid budget cuts.

State Rep. Dan Ortiz, who represents Wrangell, tried for years to restore funding for the position, striking a deal in 2021 for the 50-50 cost share as a compromise to win enough support in the Legislature and from the governor.

“As calls demand, they will still bring someone here on a case-by-case basis,” said Good. “We’ll still get the services, we just won’t have someone here.”

Regardless of whether the caseworker had planned to stay or not, Assembly Member David Powell was going to vote against the $25,000 borough contribution, he said. “We already give them office space. No other community is putting in for this, so why would we even pay for a quarter of it if it’s being used by a lot of other communities and they’re not paying anything?”

“(The state) should be funding this for our community,” he continued. “We should not be losing something because of what they’re doing.”

Bob Dalrymple was the only assembly member who voted in favor of the funding. Though he agrees that it should be the state’s responsibility to fund caseworkers, he was concerned that losing an in-town representative might damage services for children.

“I feel that without some kind of support from Wrangell, we would get reduced service,” he said. “When they set that up, there was a pretty strong case made for supporting the program with funding. I kind of regret the state not supporting it themselves … but I just fear that the state will not provide that support if we don’t provide some cash for it.”

“I’m a strong believer that if you don’t have the presence or the service in the town, you don’t get that service,” Dalrymple added.

 

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