Wilson said the six meetings, which are being held throughout the state, are a way of documenting people’s experiences with the Alaska Office of Children’s Services (OCS) for the Alaska State Legislature and the Governor’s office.
Wilson said the meetings are follow-ups on previous work her office has done in trying to address what some see as systemic problems with OCS. She said her office had previously documented more than 100 cases with gaps in proper documentation that occurred during family reunification efforts.
“I started this panel, I figure the best way to go is I ask parents if they want a public setting to be able to share their stories,” Wilson said, “That way we could then share with the legislature and governor and anyone else who could help us get this straightened out.”
Wilson said she’s concerned that family reunification efforts fall short, especially when compared to foster and adoption efforts, once children are in the system.
Twenty-two people showed up at the Saturday meeting, and shared stories of following case plans and doing everything necessary to get their kids back, only to have items indefinitely added to their case plans before they could see their children again. Others said they were shuttled through a revolving door of high-turnover caseworkers, who missed doing their part to provide needed pieces for reunification.
Former state legislator Lynn Gattis of Wasilla also testified at the meeting.
“I as a legislator, I got call after call after call,” Gattis said. “They don’t’ know where else to go. They call us. They cry. Many times I’ve had grandparents who wanted to be involved, where they weren’t being challenged. And no one called them back.”
Wilson said she understands it can be difficult for people to come forward and talk about their experiences with OCS; some might be afraid that speaking out could affect their own cases, and for others, it may just be difficult to speak about something painful in a public forum.
But she hopes the meetings across the state will shed some light on the experiences that Alaskans have had with the office, and that documenting what works and what doesn’t might lead to solutions.
One of those solutions may already be forthcoming.
Currently, Alaska Native children have stronger protections in place that prevent them from being adopted out to non-family members when a safe home with a relative is available. Those laws also require consultation with tribes.
That’s because they have federal protections under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Wilson said she thinks all Alaskan families should have more the more stringent protections required by ICWA, with family members such as grandparents having to be consulted before a child is fostered or adopted outside of the family.
To that end, she said, she’s co-sponsored House Bill 10, short title, “Child In Need of Aid/Protection; Duties.”
Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage and George Rauscher of Sutton are co-sponsors on the bill.
“What it does, is change everything to the ICWA standard,” Wilson said. “They have to have active participation, make sure the parents do have the resources necessary to get children back, and a higher standard making sure the family is contacted in putting them in a home with the family.”
The Office of Children’s Services did not immediately return comment for this story.
A “Share Your OCS Story” meeting was held in Juneau on Thursday, and another is scheduled to be held in Kenai on Saturday. For more information about the meetings, call Rep. Wilson’s office at 907-465-4797.