Overwhelmed Alaska agency says it can no longer assign public guardians for incapacitated people

Behind a bush is the entrance to the Boney Courthouse building.
The exterior of the Boney Courthouse, located in downtown Anchorage in 2022. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

The state’s Office of Public Advocacy says a worker shortage means it can no longer take in new wards to its public guardianship program, according to a letter to the court system sent last Friday. 

Public guardians are appointed by courts for adults who can’t take care of themselves and who don’t have close family members who are willing to take care of them. Guardians do things like pay rent, get food, and apply for social programs for their wards.  

James Stinson, Office of Public Advocacy Director, said the department has been losing staff over the past few years due to high workloads and relatively low pay. Stinson said the remaining 17 certified public guardians are in “triage mode”

“When you’re in triage mode, it’s difficult to ensure that everyone stays housed, stays fed,” he said. “It’s difficult not to make a mistake eventually.”

He said that taking up more cases would open up the state and the agency to “numerous negligence lawsuits” because they aren’t able to care for the wards they have. 

Stinson said the crisis has been brewing for years because wages haven’t been enough to make up for the sometimes overwhelming workload. Training new certified public guardians takes two years. 

“Unlike with many other positions that the state hires, there’s no pool of guardians we can hire from, everybody has to be trained from scratch,” said Beth Goldstein, deputy director of the Office of Public Advocacy. 

Stinson said the Dunleavy administration and the legislature have been cooperative in increasing funding and staff positions, but the shortage of qualified workers limits how much that helps. 

At the same time, Stinson said that the number of people getting referred to public guardianship has been increasing, especially during the pandemic. 

“There’s a lot of reasons for that, one of them is the “silver tidal wave” due to a rapidly aging population,” he said. That means more people who have conditions like Alzheimer’s that make it so they can’t take care of themselves. 

Rebecca Koford, a spokesperson for the Alaska Court System, said the courts would continue to refer people to the public guardian program on a “case-by-case” basis. She said the courts did not have a response to the letter. 

In response to questions, Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for Governor Mike Dunleavy wrote that his administration was preparing to release more information about how to alleviate the public guardian shortage “in the near future.”

Stinson said his office is working on restructuring to free up work time for guardians. In his letter, he wrote that it could be up to a year before the office can resume taking in new clients. But he said he’s hopeful that work with the court system and new resources from the governor’s office will help speed up that timeline. 

Lex Treinen

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@gmail.com.

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