Feds investigate: Does Alaska lock up too many kids with behavioral health issues?

A square building with red bottom
Alaska Psychiatric Institute is the state’s only inpatient psychiatric facility. It has beds for 50 adult patients. (Alaska Department of Health and Human Services)

The Department of Justice is investigating whether the state of Alaska has unnecessarily institutionalized children with behavioral health issues.

That’s according to a Jan. 21 letter from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to the Disability Law Center of Alaska, first reported by the Anchorage Daily News.

The investigation is the result, in part, of the Law Center’s 2020 complaint that the state has failed to provide appropriate treatment, relying too heavily on locking up children with behavioral health disorders, often at out-of-state, for-profit psychiatric institutions.

“Some of these kids are quite young, and they’re away from their families, away from their community, away from their culture,” said Leslie Jaehning, the Disability Law Center’s attorney.

There were several problems noted in last year’s complaint to federal authorities, Jaehning said. They include a lack of community-based services, pressure on families to put their kids in institutions, and a growing number of children again being sent Outside, she said.

A multi-year effort by the state to bring such children home to Alaska has stalled recently, something Jaehning said is likely due to a lack of funding.

“I mean, everybody wants to see Alaska’s kids getting help. Everyone wants to see kids get the treatment and services they need,” Jaehning said. “But yeah, what needs to happen is a greater focus and investment on making sure those kids can get those services here at home, staying in their home with their family or guardians, and staying within the community.”

Jaehning said she’s not sure exactly how long the Justice Department’s investigation will last, though she was told to expect it to take about a year.

The state Department of Health and Social Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. A department spokesperson told the Anchorage Daily News health officials are aware of the investigation and are communicating with the Justice Department.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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