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Expert: "Dramatic" increase in child abuse cases in southeast Alaska

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JUNEAU, Alaska - Social workers' caseloads for child neglect and abuse have dramatically increased in southeast Alaska.

Erin Walker-Tolles, executive director of Catholic Community Service in Juneau, testified before the House Finance Committee earlier this month, KTOO Public Media of Juneau reported on Sunday.

Walker-Tolles asked for more funding to deal with a 59 percent increase in referrals to her nonprofit's child advocacy center, which deals with cases of children who might be victims of abuse and neglect across the southeast. The number of children referred to the center went up from 97 in 2016 to 154 last year.

"It's dramatic, it's pervasive and, from what we've heard from the other CACs, it is statewide," Walker-Tolles said.

Program Manager Susan Loseby said she's not sure what caused the increase.

"I would hope that more kids aren't being abused," she said. "It's just that more people are reporting what they suspect as abuse."

Either way, the center needs more workers, Loseby said.

The center has three full-time employees and three on-call nurses who perform medical examinations. Walker-Tolles and Loseby are asking for $77,000 to hire and train an additional staff member.

"Ethically it's the right thing to do," Walker-Tolles said. "And if you want to talk about money, honestly it's a cost-savings to the entire community and the state. If these kids are able to heal, be safe, grow up, go to college or school or find a vocation that inspires them and contribute to the economy, instead of falling into despair, failing school, not having job opportunities. The outcomes can be pretty grim."

Loseby said working with children who have been abused and even raped takes a significant toll on staff, especially when they're constantly on call.

"It's a lot to digest, hearing all of the disclosures that children are making and then working with the families who are also in trauma," she said. "It has, of course, increased the hours that we work, it has decreased the time that we can take off to heal and get the respite that we all need."