A class-action lawsuit filed last week accuses the Alaska child welfare agency of failing to support birth parents, kinship caregivers and foster parents, while violating the requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
These problems have been pervasive for years, the lawsuit alleges, but have worsened recently due to dangerous levels of turnover in the state’s child welfare workforce.
“The state has known about these problems for many years, yet it has failed to take the necessary steps to protect the children of this state,” said Marcia Lowry, director of A Better Childhood, which filed the lawsuit against the Department of Health and Social Services and the Office of Children’s Services (OCS). “Foster children move from place to place, workers’ caseloads are past crisis level, children don’t get the permanent homes and the stability they need, and, most important of all, children are being irreparably damaged by the state’s knowing failures. It is time to ask the federal court to act.”
The Northern Justice Project, Alaska Disability Project and the law firm Perkins Coie joined A Better Childhood in representing the plaintiffs, which include 13 children from four families.
The lawsuit outlines a litany of problems in the state’s child welfare continuum, beginning with alleging a failure to regularly make reasonable efforts to prevent removal. Three of the young plaintiffs were removed from their mother after she was evicted by her landlord. OCS did not help the children’s mom find housing or services before removing them, the lawsuit alleges.
The children were then placed with their grandmother, who was not provided any foster care payments, even though the children should have been deemed eligible for such support with federal reimbursement. The lawsuit alleges that the state frequently fails to connect kinship caregivers with any monetary support.
That tracks with data collected by The Imprint for its foster care capacity website. According to federal data, nearly 30% the state’s foster youth live with kin. But according to Alaska’s self-reported data to The Imprint, 98% of its 1,205 licensed foster homes are non-relatives.
Once children are in foster care, it says, the state struggles to maintain placement stability and has seen turnover in its frontline workforce reach 59.4%, up nearly 12% from 2020. It alleges that the current caseload for Alaska workers is more than three times the national average.
“With such excessive caseloads piled atop an unstable workforce, OCS cannot protect children in foster care or meet the needs of the children and families that it serves,” the lawsuit says.
The majority of children in the state’s foster care system — about two-thirds — are Alaska Native, which means many of them and their parents have special protections under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a law passed in 1978 that requires states to make extra efforts to keep indigenous children with their families or at least their tribes.
When ICWA-protected children are placed in foster care, systems are obligated to first pursue placements with relatives, then members of the same tribe, before widening their search. The lawsuit alleges that “OCS has failed to place these Native youth in culturally appropriate foster homes and provide them with necessary services — violating language and intent of ICWA — often inflicting deep wounds of cultural loss in the process.”
OCS officials did not return an email or phone call seeking comment on the substance of the lawsuit.
Les Gara, the only Democratic candidate for governor in Alaska and a former foster youth, said the lawsuit highlights the failure of the current administration to enforce caseload requirements that are enshrined in state law.
“We required that new workers, as they learn their jobs, carry only six cases so they can both learn, and not make mistakes. That’s being violated,” said Gara, in an email to Youth Services Insider. “We have a desperate shortage for foster families. We required that the administration work hard to find foster and adoptive families in times of shortage, and I don’t see that at all. And we cannot let youth languish in the system for years and years.”
Gara said the turnover cited in the lawsuit comes despite what he described as concerning changes in the requirements around hiring for child welfare positions.
“OCS [is] now hiring workers with experience in retail, or tourism, who care but who don’t have child welfare experience,” said Gara. “We need to pay much better so that we don’t have people making decisions about breaking up families and protecting children, when they don’t have a background in these areas.“