A Bethel judge has issued a rare public sanction of the Office of Children’s Services for leaving a 12-year-old girl in foster care hospitalized alone for a week without telling her parents or tribe of her whereabouts.
Judges publicly sanctioning or reprimanding people or entities is not unheard of. But a public sanction — of an entire state agency — in a usually secret child welfare case is as rare “as hen’s teeth,” said David Case, a private attorney in Kenai who has represented tribes in child welfare cases.
That’s because child welfare court proceedings are confidential, meaning the everyday bureaucratic machinery of the system that removes children from their families almost always unfolds without public scrutiny. In this case, Bethel Superior Court Judge Terrence Haas wrote, the public should know what it looks like when a child welfare agency makes a mistake.
“We exist in a largely secret legal environment,” Haas in the order.
In a statement, the Office of Children’s Services said it “faces challenges in recruiting and retaining employees” but provides “vital services to our communities by responding to child safety concerns and ensuring that children in our care receive appropriate and timely medical and behavioral health services.”
The agency wouldn’t respond to questions about the incident that left the girl hospitalized without telling her parents, citing confidentiality.
“Despite the unconventional manner in which the Court shared its views on the child welfare system, OCS will not provide further comment on this matter,” the statement said.
The order, made public on Monday, describes what happened: Child welfare officials removed the 12-year-old Alaska Native girl from her parents in Western Alaska, placing her in foster care. On March 9, the girl was taken to a hospital in Anchorage after expressing that she was suicidal.
She was hospitalized alone for a full week. During that week, no one notified the girl’s parents, her tribe or her court-appointed guardian that she was in the hospital — which OCS was legally obligated to do.
They only learned that the adolescent girl had been sitting in a psychiatric ward for one week because of an already-scheduled court hearing.
The Office of Children’s Services clearly should have communicated with the parents, but didn’t because of a complicated chain of circumstances involving multiple staffing problems, the order said. The result was a situation that trampled on the rights of the child’s parents to know that their daughter was hospitalized and to participate in medical decision-making, he wrote.
“It is probably not possible to provide the kind of staffing any of us would expect in a region as vast, as complicated, with as many players, as many tribes, as many children removed, as many out-of-state placements, as many hospitalizations, and as many crisis circumstances as exist in this region,” Haas wrote. “OCS’s staffing is not adequate and its staffing structure not appropriate to the job at hand.”
“I don’t think I’m probably shocking anybody in saying that,” Haas followed in the order.
The involved tribe’s attorney asked for a symbolic sanction of $10.
Instead, the judge decided to take the unusual step of making a sanction public. The judge wrote that he made the order public to shine a light on a legal world that is opaque to all but those involved in it. What happened is not uncommon. But because of confidentiality, the system “creates outcomes the general public, the legislature and many, many people are not aware of,” Haas wrote.
That’s true, said Savannah Fletcher, a Fairbanks-based attorney with the civil rights law firm Northern Justice Project who has dealt with more than 100 child welfare cases. What happened to the girl isn’t unique, but a sign of a long overburdened system that’s showing catastrophic cracks, she said.
“So my guess is he really just was trying to say, ‘Here’s a situation, I’m going to state it in a way that’s not going to breach anyone’s confidentiality, but the outside of the (child welfare) world needs to know that this is going on,’” she said. “I think it’s just a sign that we need a change and maybe a bit of desperation from Judge Haas.”
The order ends with the judge saying that many of the people who are able to talk about their experiences in Alaska’s child welfare system are so aggrieved by it that they are not listened to. If more people could see the everyday decisions made, “I think they would often be unhappy with the way we have funded our system, the way we operate it, the way we staff it, the decisions we make.”
Read the full order below: