North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson has penned a letter to state Attorney General Kevin Clarkson alleging that Alaska Native children are being disproportionately favored over children of other races and ethnicities in Office of Children’s Services operations due to the Indian Child Welfare Act.
“The federal government changed the level of the State’s OCS duty when it implemented the Indian Child Welfare Act. It requires a higher standard based on ethnicity when in fact all children deserve to be treated equally,” Wilson wrote.
In a Thursday news release, a spokesman for Wilson said the representative is imploring “the state to compel the federal government to end race-based double standards utilized by the Office of Children’s Services that are not only immoral and unethical, but a violation of (the) state constitution.”
Wilson notes in her letter she supports the ICWA’s protections of “the Indian family” over the years, but criticizes the fact that those protections aren’t expanded to all children.
But a joint statement emailed to the Daily News-Miner from the Alaska Department of Law and Department of Health and Social Services pushed against Wilson’s assertions.
“The issue of removing children from their homes for their own protection is a weighty issue that can definitely be debated as to how best to balance the safety of a child and the rights of the parents. The fact that the Indian Child Welfare Act requires different standards for ‘Indian children’ does not create a constitutional issue,” the statement read.
“In fact, that issue was just addressed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that ICWA does not unconstitutionally discriminate. The same is true under the Alaska Constitution. A federal statute like the ICWA is supreme to the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection provision.”
House Republican spokesman Zachary Freeman noted in the Thursday news release that statistics from the OCS show “the Western region cases are virtually all Indian Child Welfare Act cases, so the legal burden for continued out-of-home placement is higher.”
The DOL and DHSS response statement clarified that Freeman’s interpretation of the data was lacking in their mind.
“This data does show that reunification rates are higher in the Western region, but what is not mentioned is that the Western region also has the highest rate of removal because another incident occurs where the only way to protect the child is to remove the child again from the home,” the statement read. “Due to a lack of consistent staff and community services available the higher legal threshold cannot be met and children are reunified prematurely. The reality is that the Western region is not a region to emulate — it is a region where the state continues to struggle with recruitment and retention of staff, thus creating a lack of resources for the area.”
This is but the most recent installment in a longtime feud between Wilson and the Alaska OCS with the North Pole representative accusing the state agency of “legal kidnapping” in 2016.
Ultimately, Wilson would prefer the same standards advised by ICWA be administered across the state. But the DHSS and DOL say that would only increase what they are categorizing as a staffing and workload issue.
“If, as the representative urges, the state adopts the ICWA threshold for the entire state, the result will not be safer homes with higher reunification rates,” the statement reads. “The result will be that the state will be forced to return more children to unsafe homes because the state lacks the resources to meet the higher legal threshold.”
The statement, sent from DHSS spokesman Clinton Bennett, noted that the DOL and DHSS plan to respond jointly to Wilson on the issue.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.