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Interview with Ron Newcome
September 20, 2005 permalink
An interview with a former Alaska caseworker Ron Newcome giving a candid view of child protection from the inside.
Children's agency is grim, says an insider
NEWCOME: Retired state worker calls on flawed office to be dismantled.
Ron Newcome lasted 26 years in a tough and thankless state job: protecting kids from abuse and neglect.
He started with the Division of Family and Youth Services (now the Office of Children's Services) in 1975 in Kodiak, moved to Anchorage, and quit a couple of times, once to commercial fish and another time to run a glass business. In 1989, he started anew with the agency in Seward, where he stayed until he retired in March. He spent his entire career as a front line child protection worker and also licensed foster homes, child care centers and adult care facilities.
His experiences provide a rare glimpse into an agency that often is hidden from the public. Some of his views are extreme. He unleashed harsh criticism about the management of OCS and DFYS. He says the whole operation should be dismantled and started fresh. He talked openly about drinking.
Newcome, 55, is married with two grown stepdaughters. He and his wife are renovating a house in Seward, where they also run a cleaning business.
Newcome sat down recently with Daily News reporter Lisa Demer. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why Seward?
A. While I was working in Anchorage, I got sober. And when I came back to that job sober, I realized I couldn't do it. ... So that's when I left the agency in Anchorage and was gone for two years. And then when I went back to the job with two years of sobriety in Seward I realized there was some fresh excitement to the job.
For me, Seward was a very manageable assignment. It was a small town. ... So I found the job satisfying because it was rarely any situation that one or two phone calls couldn't give me all the information I needed. It was not like Anchorage where something happened and you had no idea what that was or who these people were. ... many of the cases in Seward were multi-generation cases.
Q. Let's go back a minute to what you were saying about your background. ... When you were drinking, were you drinking on the job?
A. Oh yes. Everyone was.
Q. Everyone was?
A. Drinking and/or drugging
Q. When was that?
A. ... I was visiting Juneau (in 1975). I just saw (the sign for) Department of Health and Social Services. And I wondered what the job situation was up here, and I walked into an office where I was immediately led into the director's office. My interview consisted of a question of was I afraid of flying in small planes. I was hired for Kodiak. ...
Q. What was your background to do this work?
A. I had two years in a community mental health center doing a broad range of mental health services. And two years at a residential treatment center for disturbed kids. I had absolutely no background in child welfare, child protection.
Q. Why was it when you went back sober you felt like you couldn't do the work?
A. ... The inescapable frustrations of the bureaucracy and the flaws of the agency together with the stresses built into the job potentiate in Anchorage in lethal ways.
Q. So you are not saying the families were harder to deal with ... You are saying it was the agency that was.
A. In 26 years of doing this job all over Southcentral Alaska I have never felt unmanageable stress from the clients I deal with. That's the business. The unmanageable stress comes from the agency.
Q. The perception at least is that there is great stress on OCS workers. ... If they make the wrong decision, it has such serious consequences.
A. Well that's because the individual workers have all of the responsibility and none of the authority.
My wife and I run a commercial janitorial service in Seward and when we go away on a vacation or when we're otherwise unavailable we give service employees who have been with us for two to three months more petty cash authorization and more on-the-spot decision-making authority than any master's level social worker in the OCS system.
Q. What was the most frustrating thing to you?
A. ...The job of a child protection social worker became documenting activities that were reimbursable for federal funds. ... If I were commissar of everything, I would shut the entire agency down. I would take the money and use it immediately for increased law enforcement presence. ... I would let law enforcement deal with (child abuse) as either being a crime or not. And I would encourage people to have lots of community dialog about what each community needed to do about the remainder of the problem. Because we cannot fix the existing system. It's too bureaucratically entrenched.
Q. We've all heard the criticisms, from opposite ends of the spectrum, that OCS rips children away from parents when they could be safe at home or that it leaves children in homes where it is dangerous. ... Do you think either of those touch against the truth?
A. I think both do. I think that making that determination of whether to allow a child to remain in a home is a complicated final choice based on the processing of a lot of information. And more often than not, children have to be removed because the individual worker doesn't have the resources at his or her disposal to preserve the child in the family. There are of course situations in which any panel of reasonable women and men would instantly determine the child needs to be removed. Those aren't the problem cases. ... This job is not something that requires much more than common sense and good decision-making skills. ...
Q. Describe some of the main reasons you would see kids coming into custody.
A. There are of course a percentage of cases of extremely damaged people who have had children and are clueless as to any other way of dealing with those children than the way they themselves were dealt with and that's usually a neglectful and abusive path.
Q. What's actually happening in that home?
A. I think there's still a large number of people out there who feel that spare the rod, spoil the child needs to come back as a popular approach to child rearing. I think there's a large number of people out there who exert a kind of authority and control in their home that is completely unrealistic given the realities of early 21st century society. I think that we live in a culture of societally approved substance abuse. ... So a lot of kids are being raised by parents who are pretty zoned out.
Q. You mentioned that there is a high acceptance of spanking. Certainly that's not against the law. At what point is spanking something the state even needs to be looking at. ... Is anything that leaves a mark a reason for the state to intervene?
A. In and of itself, it provides certainly a basis for an investigation. Whether or not it is a parent who just had enough and used for probably the first or second time physical discipline and used more than was necessary is of course different than the kid who can rattle off the number of swats for each violation that he commits. Didn't pick up room, five. Didn't do homework, 10.
... But you know, physical abuse is a very small percentage of the cases. They are the high profile cases. They are the dramatic cases. They are what everybody loves to talk about. But they are not what floods the offices of children's services. Much more typical is the chronic neglect situation. ... Substance abuse is almost always a factor. ... Life is exceptionally hard for single parents. We give a lot of lip service to the value in society we place on families. But we really do very little to support families. One of the most glaring examples is child care, particularly for the single working parent. There's a real tendency for social workers to get to be middle class busybodies and to get involved with sort of ideal circumstances. ... I think the most difficult line to draw is the neglect line, not the physical abuse line. I think most people know physical abuse when they see it.
Q. With neglect, where do you see the line ... ?
A. ... My line was could the state offer them anything better. ...
Q. Would that mean did you know of a good foster family, do you have one lined up with room?
A. Sure. Or are there resources. You'd have single parents with multiple kids who are trying to go to school or trying to get some career advancement and they'd get these eager beaver social workers who'd give them these case plans that have them going to parenting classes when they don't have transportation, that have them paying for mental health or diagnostic service when they don't have health insurance. I mean you are putting additional pressures on a family. ...
Q. Why don't you summarize this case that has been kind of weighing on you?
A. This one's a classic. It was a single male Caucasian parent. The ... physical abuser was a substance-addicted (alcohol) Native female ... who was the natural mother. ... Ultimately the drugs just got to dad and dad couldn't handle it. ... He committed like his second or third felony and he had to abandon the child. (He described a situation in which a child's mother was physically abusive and his father a drug addict who was on the lam and then incarcerated. The child ended up in foster care out of state with a former Alaska couple.)
They just stepped up to the plate. They took this young man in the home. ... This kid that I used to describe as a 4-year-old who could roll a joint with one hand on a screaming motorcycle suddenly is going to tennis camp, band camp, a time share condo across from Carnegie Hall for classical concerts. ...
Q. This turned out to be a success story?
A. Well, yeah on that level. ... When the issue comes up to reconnect this Native child with his huge Native family -- I mean he has hundreds of relatives -- the courts ordered that visit. Every 6-month case plan recommended that visit, and somehow Southcentral regional management managed to always find other economic priorities. ...
Q. How many years did it take to finally get this child to Alaska (to visit his biological family)?
Q. How many of the cases involved sexual abuse?
A. ... When we are talking about sexual abuse we are really talking about a range of human behavior. ... We need to distinguish between the chronic habitual pedophile and the seductive 17 ½-year-old and a stepparent. ... There's a very, very unpopular approach to sexual abuse that works, with children remaining in the families. Anybody who would even mention that in most treatment circles would be crucified.
Q. Do you think that makes sense?
A. I think in some families it does ... You have complicated multi-dynamic family systems that are malfunctioning that result in inappropriate sexual behavior between members of that family that's going to require highly skilled, long-term, difficult, comprehensive fixing.
... What happens (now) is that we create all of this chaos. I used to call it hitting the pulse button on the food processor. We wreak absolute havoc in people's lives and then we offer them nothing. ...
Q. Why speak out now?
A. You get to the end of this much time and you try to make some sense of it. ...
Daily News reporter Lisa Demer can be reached at email@example.com and 257-4390.
Source: Anchorage Daily News
Note: Social workers, and former social workers, are a valuable source of information about child protection, when they speak candidly, as in this interview. The Anchorage Daily News article on the internet linked to another article in the same paper interviewing Tammy Sandoval, recently appointed to lead Alaska's child protection system. It included the exchange:
Q. We hear so often two things: that the state rips away children who could be safely left at home and also that it leaves children in homes where there really is a danger. Which one of those do you feel like is the greater problem?
A. To answer that question would assume that I think that there is a problem.
There is nothing useful to be learned in this kind of interview.