Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced in December that his administration plans to split Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services into two. Among many other impacts, the move would put the state’s foster care system in a new department.
Tribal organizations, advocates for foster children and the largest state worker’s union are all voicing concerns.
The administration has emphasized that it’s aiming to improve outcomes for children and families by having two, more focused departments to provide oversight. The plan to separate a new Department of Family and Community Services from the Department of Health may also divide the Office of Children’s Services, which oversees foster care, into two offices.
Several groups expressed concerns about the split to lawmakers at a mid-January hearing.
Among them were Tribes that have been working with the state to implement a compact giving Tribes more responsibility for child welfare.
Richard Peterson is president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which has been working on the compact.
“The time to find a new commissioner, directors and staff will be a challenge,” he said. “The state struggles to fill the vacancies currently, leaving many of our programs and families not receiving the attention they deserve.”
He said Tribes should have been consulted before the state rolled out the proposal, not after. He notes most children in Alaska’s foster system are Alaska Native.
“I think that will only get worse if we’re not involved,” he said.
Amanda Metivier advocates for foster children as the co-founder and director of the nonprofit Facing Foster Care in Alaska. She said the state hasn’t provided evidence as to why children and families should have to deal with two offices.
She said the system is already confusing, and it’s hard to know which office will play what role.
“And to then have to deal with multiple systems, I think could just be absolutely daunting,” she said.
Metivier said the plan wasn’t prepared in a spirit of collaboration with those involved in foster care.
“There hasn’t been any effort to directly engage young people, the youth in that process,” she said.
A Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson said the idea for splitting the Office of Children’s Services into two “was brought forward as a potential way to build trust and begin to improve outcomes for the families and children” who receive state services.
“The department is committed to working with our Tribal partners, community partners, advocacy groups, and those Alaskans that we serve directly to find solutions for improving our child welfare system in Alaska and better ways that we can assist and support families,” the department said by email.
State officials have emphasized they’re currently engaging with stakeholders and will consult with Tribes on potential changes to the Office of Children’s Services. They also said that splitting the department will not substantively change or impact the state-Tribal compact.
Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the Alaska State Employees Association, said his union is concerned the state is laying the groundwork for outsourcing children’s services jobs.
“If this were to happen, this work would leave Alaska,” he said. “It would undoubtedly impact the quality of services, which are sensitive in nature and require local-based knowledge for the administration of services.”
Dunleavy could split the Department of Health and Social Services using an executive order. But an executive order can’t be used to privatize or outsource any state services.
The executive order is expected during the legislative session, with the goal of having it going into effect on July 1.