FAIRBANKS — A North Pole legislator is accusing the state of “legal kidnapping” for the rise in the number of children in state protective custody.
Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, this week called for a grand jury investigation into the Office of Children’s Services, alleging the agency has ignored state and federal law in order to put more children into state custody and keep them there.
Wilson, who’s made it a mission in her office to advocate for parents who’ve had their children taken into custody by OCS, said she believes the rise in cases is intentional. In a news release on Wednesday, Wilson called on the state district attorneys to bring an investigation to a grand jury.
“OCS has become a protected empire built on taking children and separating families,” Wilson said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “This is not to say there are not those children who do need to be removed from horrible situations and need protection. I believe children and parents are caught up in legal kidnapping and ineffective politics.”
According to the Office of Children’s Services, the number of children in protective custody rose about one-third during the past five years, from 2,700 in 2011 to 3,700 in 2015. The numbers are not adjusted for population, which grew about 2 percent during that time.
The number of reports of abuse or neglect has stayed relatively steady throughout the past five years, but the percentage of cases that are screened — the first step to potentially removing a child from a household — has risen from about 40 percent to about 55 percent during that time.
Christy Lawton, the director of OCS, says that’s because previous screening standards were severely lacking, but Wilson offers up a far different explanation.
Wilson says she believes the uptick is driven by money.
The state, she says, can make money from federal foster care funding by taking children and keeping them in the system, so it’s incentivized to split up families and not offer services that could lead to a reunification with families.
“I think they’re following the money. A few years ago during the Bill Clinton era, they changed a lot of the money from going from reunification to foster care and adoption,” she said. “I think the reason we see the growth that we have over the last few years — going more into having children in the system and less reunification — really has more to do with the financial support that’s received from the federal government.”
Her complaints against OCS are exhaustive, finding shortcomings or failures with nearly every aspect of the system, including confusing paperwork and long wait lists.
She accused the agency of missing or losing key paperwork, making an already difficult-to-navigate system even more perplexing. She said caseworkers often can be punitive or even ignore professional advice. She said the system would be better served with trained social workers than caseworkers.
She said she believes there isn’t a need to address OCS policies through state law or through any increases to the agency’s budget.
Things would be better, she said, if the agency just followed its own policies.
“If they followed their processes and procedures closer, first of all I don’t think you would have as many kids in the system, and reunification would be happening much more,” she said. “I think it’s more about the process than it is about the money.”
She said the desired outcome would be a clearer process for parents to respond to investigations, know what they need to fix and be guaranteed to regain custody of their children once they go through that process.
“We want a systematic change so parents have the opportunity to get their children back when they do those things that are warranted,” she said.
Lawton acknowledges that OCS hasn’t done a perfect job in every case and has come up short in many, but says it’s not because of a plot but because across the board OCS is overworked.
She said the average OCS caseworker’s load is often double the maximum recommended by the Child Welfare League of America and many cases are spread out over large geographic distances. Add on top of that a 500-page manual of state and federal laws that need to be followed, and she said caseworkers end up prioritizing.
“It’s near impossible, there’s no human way a worker could accomplish everything that’s required or mandated by the feds or state government for every single family, every single time,” she said. “It’s never going to happen with the resources we have. No matter how hard they work themselves into the ground to do it. It sets up an unfortunate system where they’re having to prioritize and having to make decisions, and that means the kids and families in Alaska don’t get the very best every single time from us.”
She was also critical of the current funding formulas. The federal money that Wilson says incentivizes the department to do a poor job is only focused on the worst cases — after the government intervenes by taking a child — not for intervention services that could prevent it in the first place.
“Unfortunately, the feds do not provide states a lot of money for doing the preventative early intervention work. What they provide funding for is when children are in foster care, they provide 50 percent of the cost for foster care,” she said. “It’s not an incentive, it’s just the way the funding structure works. A lot of our funding is geared for families in what I call the deep end.”
She said the paradigm could be shifted by the state if the state is willing to fund intervention services such as parenting classes and drug rehabilitation to a greater degree and in more communities.
“That’s a choice the state of Alaska can make and make differently than the federal government,” she said. “The state of Alaska could choose to invest in the front-end with dollars that would then save the state of Alaska on every department. ... If we only started to think more up-front instead of being more reactionary, which is what our department does.”
As far as the increase of number of children in state protective custody, Lawton said it’s due to two forces, one intentional and the other not.
She explained that a recent review showed the process to determine which cases should be screened had “some disturbing trends” where families that might need intervention weren’t getting it. So the department broadened the scope of which complaints it will screen.
The unintentional increase, she said, likely is due to an increase in opioid abuse by adults.
She said many of the complaints within OCS likely would be addressed by the upcoming 2017 federal review of the program, an effort being conducted of many states. The process will review 60 cases from start to finish to find failings. If the state comes up short, like Lawton expects, the feds would require the state to put together an improvement plan or face potential sanctions.
“From that audit we expect we will fail, as almost every other state has failed, because the benchmarks are very high,” she said. “It’s high for good reasons because we’re dealing with children and families that should have nothing but the best if the state government will intervene.”
The process ahead
The decision will likely rest in the hands of local district attorneys to act upon. Wilson said she’s mailed out information to all nine state district attorney offices, asking them to open up an investigation.
A message left with the Fairbanks District Attorney’s office was not returned on Thursday.
Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills said the request is under review in the state office.
“All I can say at this point is we are reviewing the request and cannot comment further,” she wrote via email.
Wilson declined to provide a copy of the information she’s sent to the district attorneys offices.
“We’re trying to give the opportunities to the district attorneys,” she said. “We don’t want to make this political. We want to make this about the facts.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.