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Alaska News

Justice Department opens civil rights probe into whether Alaska ‘unnecessarily institutionalizes’ children

The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into whether the state of Alaska “unnecessarily institutionalizes” children with behavioral problems.

In 2020, the Alaska Disability Law Center lodged a complaint about the rising number of Alaska children and teenagers being sent to Outside psychiatric treatment facilities as well as locked hospitals in-state because of a dearth of less-restrictive treatment options here, said the center’s attorney, Leslie Jaehning.

On Jan. 21, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division notified the organization that it has launched an investigation.

“DOJ is opening an investigation to determine whether the State of Alaska unnecessarily institutionalizes children with behavioral health conditions, in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ..., and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C. ...,” states the letter from attorney Patrick Holkins with the Civil Rights Division.

The Olmstead case is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that holds that the “unjustified segregation” of people with disabilities is unlawful discrimination.

The Disability Law Center’s complaint focused on the number of Alaska children who are sent to often for-profit, locked psychiatric treatment facilities in distant states, separating them from their families, Jaehning said. Instead, the state could invest in offering help that would allow kids to stay in their homes and communities, according to Jaehning.

“We’re sending kids Outside and putting them in Northstar (Hospital) when really, community-based services are what they need,” Jaehning said.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is “aware of this investigation; the Department of Law has communicated with the Department of Justice on this matter,” health department spokesman Clinton Bennett said.

As of March 2020, when the Disability Law Center was researching the complaint, about 120 Alaska kids and teens were in Outside facilities. A state effort to “Bring the Kids Home” from Outside hospitals has faltered in recent years.

Exactly what course the investigation will take isn’t clear, but it will likely take at least a year and involve Justice Department lawyers, paralegals and investigators, Jaehning said.

A similar Justice Department investigation into child mental health treatment found that West Virginia was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and led to a 2019 agreement in which the state promised to expand mobile crisis services, case management, therapeutic foster care, in-home therapy and other ways of keeping kids with behavioral problems children out of institutions.

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