Court rules civil commitment statutes don’t apply to foster children, North Star Hospital

A three-year-long legal argument about committing foster children to North Star Behavioral Health Hospital is one step closer to resolution. A judge ruled in late March that the Office of Children’s Services can legally commit foster kids to the psychiatric hospital without getting a judge’s approval.

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Anchorage Superior Court Judge Erin Marston ruled that the state’s civil commitment statutes don’t apply to North Star because it is not included in the legal list of designated treatment and evaluation facilities.

Assistant Attorney General Steven Bookman, who argued the case on behalf of the state, said there is not a specific statute that limits the amount of time a child can stay at North Star.

“You have to remember that parents will take their children to North Star Hospital,” he said. “If you were trying to arrange for medical care for your child who is experiencing a psychiatric crisis, it might seem odd that there’s a statute that says you can’t do that or that that has to be judicially reviewed.”

In Judge Marston’s order, he argues that OCS is the legal guardian of foster children, so they have the right to voluntarily send children to North Star if necessary.

About two years ago he mandated a judicial review of each case within 30 days of the child entering the institution, meaning a hearing had to be scheduled by a judge. *OCS policy already requested judicial oversight.* The tribes of Hooper Bay and Kongiganak wanted a review within 72 hours, which is what the law says is required for adults who are involuntarily committed to a designated psychiatric treatment center.

Bookman says 30 days seems like a reasonable amount of time for a review to ensure that foster children are receiving the medical care they deserve.

“I think the right in having a judge review the admission to North Star has to be balanced against the need to to make sure the child’s needs are being properly evaluated. And it is going to take some time to do that,” he said.

For the tribes, the 30-day review requirement was not what they were seeking, but it’s still a small victory. However, the tribe’s lawyer, Sydney Tarzwell, said the ruling that civil commitment laws do not apply to treatment facilities that are not on a designated list has far reaching implications.

“That idea that any facility that’s not a designated treatment facility or evaluation facility — that they aren’t governed by these laws — there’s no reason that would be restricted to foster youth,” she said. “Any person could end up locked in a psychiatric facility for as long as the facility wants for whatever reason without any court oversight.”

Tarzwell said some procedural matters still need to be settled before they can decide if they are going to appeal the case.

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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