Using research to reach out to kids in peril

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

UAA's Dr. Diwakar Vadapalli was born in India and earned a bachelor's degree in architecture there before moving to the U.S. He earned a master's degree at Kansas State University, worked as a consulting planner in Anchorage and then as an Indian Child Welfare Act worker in Sleetmute before earning his Ph.D. in social welfare at Case Western Reserve University. Now, Vadapalli conducts research for the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) and, since April 2013 has chaired the Alaska Citizen Review Panel, a federally mandated panel that annually evaluates policies, procedures and practices of the Alaska Office of Children's Services (OCS) and local child-protection agencies.

Dr. Diwakar Vadapalli serves as an assistant professor with UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research. He also chairs the Alaska Citizen Review Panel, which strives to improve the way the state Office of Children's Services and other agencies reach out to protect children and help struggling families. (Photo by Philip Hall/UAA)

I AM UAA: Dr. Diwakar Vadapalli serves as an assistant professor with UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research. He also chairs the Alaska Citizen Review Panel, which strives to improve the way the state Office of Children's Services and other agencies reach out to protect children and help struggling families. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

What was it like to grow up in India?

I largely led a very protected life in India. Both my parents worked for the government-stable jobs and steady income. My dad was a veterinary doctor and my mom was a high school teacher. I grew up in boarding schools from fifth grade, and spent three years at home intermittently since then. However, a large extended family was always part of my life. My upbringing was strong on cultural values. I had very little awareness of the pervasive poverty and hardship around me until I had to do a household survey as an undergrad in the slums of Visakhapatnam, the city I went to college in.

What things did/do you like most about India?

Diversity in everything is just part of life in India. I grew up learning three languages. I was exposed to three major religions, and TV became ubiquitous when I was in my seventh and eighth grade, and opened up the whole country to my eyes. Movies and cricket were major sources of entertainment. I now feel thankful for that early exposure to diversity.

Why did you seek a degree in architecture in India?

My parents always wanted me to be an engineer. I labored through five years of [getting an] architecture degree because switching majors was not an option. I still can recall some details of what I learned, and it sometimes helps me appreciate buildings and spaces. There were some benefits-I got to travel around the country on architectural tours, enjoyed the university life and grew as a person, and, best of all, that is where I met my wife. We were classmates.

Why did you decide to travel to the U.S. to attend grad school? 

The U.S. was a preferred destination for most of my colleagues at the time, and my parents thought I should do the same. I had no desire, nor a plan, to come here.

What did you study at Kansas State and what was your professional path afterward?

At Kansas State, I tried to focus on rural planning because of my interest in villages and administration; I quickly found out that rural Kansas is nothing like rural India. My first job was in Anchorage after I finished my master's, as a consulting planner, but it was clear that it wasn't a good fit. I moved to Sleetmute because I knew people there through my job in Anchorage. All they had for me was the job of an ICWA worker. I soon found out it was sort of a paraprofessional social work job. It was trial by fire into a lot of learning-village life, rural Alaska issues, social work, tribal administration, child welfare and Alaska state child welfare mechanisms and some federal mechanisms. Villages in Alaska reminded me of villages in India, except with a lot of snow. So, it was a cool comeback of sorts.

Why did you seek a Ph.D. in social welfare?

Two years into my job as an ICWA worker in Sleetmute, I had some significant positive impacts on the village. But, making a sustained impact on people's lives requires a lifetime of commitment. I wasn't ready to make that commitment to Sleetmute. And I felt policy changes at a higher level will have a more sustained impact. To reach those higher levels, I needed to get a Ph.D. Around the same time, I got married in 2005 while in Sleetmute and my wife was living and working in Cleveland. CWRU hosted the 2004 vice presidential debate, and thus got on my radar as a potential place for a Ph.D. Thanks to my work experience in Sleetmute, I got into one of the best Ph.D. programs in social welfare in the country.

What happened to cause you to shift to social welfare as the focus of your studies?

Social justice was a value I inherited from my parents-mostly from my dad. Sleetmute provided me my first opportunity to actively engage with the complexity and challenge of social justice. From there, it was just a matter of finding the channels to exercise my abilities, and learn more skills along the way.

What did you expect Alaska to be like?

First time, I had no expectations. The villages really drew me in. Second time, I really wanted to get involved with the child-protection system.

What prompted you to join the faculty here at UAA?

ISER is the reason. ISER is highly respected among policy circles in Alaska. It always had real impact on Alaska policy on many fronts. I wanted to be part of that legacy.

You chair the Alaska Citizen Review Panel. What does the panel do?

Traditionally, agencies sought public comment in response to a regulation they had devised. The CRP is a vehicle for the public participation process, with the added dimension of review of both the policy and practice. There needs to be a sustained dialogue, not one-way traffic, and this is a very public dialogue between the agency and the community.

What are some of the achievements/successes of the CRP?

Diwakar Vadapalli chairs the Alaska Citizen Review Panel (CRP), which conducts an annual review of the state Office of Children's Services. This map shows OCS' five districts; CRP was instrumental in creating a separate district for Western Alaska. (Map courtesy of Diwakar Vadapalli)

The Alaska Citizen Review Panel (CRP), annually reviews the state Office of Children's Services. This map shows the five OCS districts; CRP was instrumental in creation of a Western Alaska district.

OCS operates through five regional offices. The Y-K Delta used to be served through the Wasilla office. CRP was one of the very vocal parties about creating the Western region, which happened in 2010. Logistics is one big problem in serving that region from Wasilla. And it's a cultural mismatch-the issues Western Alaska faces are very different than those a Wasilla family faces. I worked in Sleetmute when the Wasilla office served the Western region. Any situation involving maltreatment that required physical separation between the child and the family, the most frequent solution was to take the kid out of the community. It's hard to envision a potential solution within the village without the community's active participation in finding a solution. Leaving their community is very disruptive for a kid that age-they lose their cultural continuity. Now, CRP keeps a sustained watch over what's happening in the Western region.

How are your professional skills and affiliation with the university helping your work with the CRP?

The amount of public engagement is immense. As a faculty member at UAA, my job has a mix of three distinct activities-research, teaching and service. This combination informs and enriches each of these activities. The service component allows me to do much more than most other volunteers on the panel. In addition, I leverage the resources a large urban university offers-meeting spaces, library, other scholars and researchers, students and the network of people and institutions within and beyond UAA. Above all that, ISER has a history of public policy research, which helps me a lot in understanding Alaska's unique public policy process. My training as a researcher helped me in critically examining CRP's role and defining the scope of its operations. I teach in the public administration program, and my experience with the panel allows me to explore several nuances of public administration in my teaching. And that enhances my work for the panel. It is all mutually reinforcing and very rewarding.

If someone had to "shadow" you in your work with the Alaska Citizen Review Panel, what would they see?

They would see the work that goes into managing a voluntary panel of passionate and busy experts, who have a lot of ideas and skills but barely have the time to contribute. And they will see how this seven-member volunteer panel systematically unpacks a $140-million, 500-employee-strong, complex bureaucracy and reviews its policies and practices annually.

What are the biggest challenges you face, particularly with the CRP?

Alaska does not have a mechanism to accumulate, distill and disseminate knowledge to inform programs and the general practice of child protection. We barely evaluate any child-protection program unless required by federal statute. This general lack of recognition of the value of research and evaluation in child protection is concerning, especially considering our expenditure in Alaska across all organizations on these issues runs into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The perception that researchers do not understand reality is very challenging to overcome. As a researcher on this panel, I often come across this misperception and I am always amazed by it.

Describe the life you have here in Alaska.

Life is smooth. I love my work, my family is growing, and Anchorage is a great place to be. With a 3-year-old, there is never a dull day. We love people's approach to weather here: there is never bad weather, it is just bad clothing. My colleagues are wonderful. Some of their accomplishments (both professional and personal) are towering and inspire me a lot. I am not much of an outdoor person, but we try to get into the groove here. When everything else gets tough or boring, I have my cricket and Bollywood. There is a small Indian community for cultural continuity and connectivity. Rest is what we make of all these resources. So,nothing to complain about. I am just loving it.

Compiled by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement.


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