North Pole Rep. continues to press for OCS reform

Tammie Wilson
Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, April 8, 2015. She is calling for an investigation into the Office of Children’s Services. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Update: 01/19 11:30 a.m.

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The state ombudsman and a citizen review panel will address issues at the Office of Children’s Services or O.C.S. Alaska assistant attorney general Robert Henderson said the action announced Thursday, was the recommendation of a confidential grand jury investigation.

”The grand jury has two functions under Alaska law,” Henderson said. “The first function is to review all criminal charges that will ultimately be filed. The second is an investigative grand jury, and the investigative grand jury is to investigate matters of public welfare. That’s where this case falls.”


State Representative Tammie Wilson of North Pole continues to press for reform of the State Office of Children’s Services. Wilson cited a 30 percent growth in the number of reportedly endangered kids being removed from parents in recent years, and some constituents unhappy with how the system has treated them.

Wilson wants the Office of Children’s Services to refocus on parental treatment and assistance, instead of removing kids from homes. Wilson has resubmitted a bill that would adopt a uniform standard for when and how children can be removed, based on federal law.

”And that would be the Indian Child Welfare Act,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the federal ICWA standard, which currently only applies to Alaska Native and American Indian children, is a better formula for addressing parental behavior, and keeping kids home or with extended family.

”It also doesn’t allow as much hearsay as it does now,” Wilson said. “You actually have to have proof that something is happening within the family unit. And it also encourages more of keeping  the child in the home and putting the resources there – working with the parents versus taking the children out. ICWA is largely known as the gold standard when it comes to best practices.”

Alaska OCS Director Christy Lawton said the department is officially neutral on Wilson’s bill, but acknowledged that ICWA policy mandates beneficial services.

”We have to demonstrate that we’ve provided active efforts to prevent removal or active efforts to promote reunification,” Lawton said.

That means actually taking family members to substance abuse treatment, counseling or other help, not just recommending they get it. Lawton said it would be great to do that for all families, but notes ICWA was established to address systematic racism.

”It’s almost as if you’re saying that ICWA isn’t really needed anymore because the playing field is level, which unfortunately is still not the case in Alaska, or in many other parts of the country,” Lawton said.

Lawton also pointed to potential loss of federal support for cases involving Alaska Native families, funds contingent on meeting strict ICWA requirements the financially strapped state may struggle to achieve if applied in all child welfare cases. Representative Wilson maintained the state has enough money and just needs to do a better job.

”My aspect is if we weren’t taking children that we should not be taking, we would be able to use the resources into families that really do need those resources,” Wilson said. “Cause, it’s much cheaper and it’s better for the family to be able to keep the children in the home. And then if you need the parents to do certain types of classes, then you have those worked out at the same time”

Wilson’s take is based on case records obtained through constituents critical of OCS practices. Wilson is awaiting response from the State Department of Law on a request for a grand jury investigation of OCS, and is holding three public hearings on the agency in coming weeks. OCS Director Lawton said she’ll continue to work with Wilson to improve agency practices.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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