Being a social worker is often a thankless job, and sometimes it can be a dangerous one, too. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services tasks the Office of Children's Services with handling child abuse allegations and dealing with a deluge of children who fall through Alaska's cracks. Most often, people do not deal with the agency by choice. Some have had children taken from their home by the agency. Most are angry about the situation. Some are angry enough to get violent.
Currently, the Anchorage office, the agency's largest, is the only one with its own private security guards, but the Office of Children's Services is looking at ways to increase security at its five regional offices throughout Alaska.
The need for security was on full display at the agency's Anchorage regional office on July 23. That's when Anchorage Police said a husband and wife forced the OCS office to evacuate and close early -- hurling insults, hate, and even spittle toward workers.
Jason Kesanen, 42, is now facing an arrest warrant charging him with making terroristic threats. According to Anchorage police, Kesanen told an OCS employee he was going to "kill you, bitch, and everyone else who works here." Kesanen was gone when officers arrived, but his wife, 20-year-old Amber Lynn Gilbert, was in the parking lot, and she was arrested -- also charged with making terroristic threats. Neither Gilbert nor Kesanen followed through on their threats that day.
"Our new security officers were critical in keeping everyone safe during the incident, and were able to assist APD in arresting (Gilbert)," said OCS spokesperson Susan Morgan.
The Alaska Legislature appropriated $490,000 to pay for security at the Anchorage regional office after two menacing incidents in a single day last year. The first left an OCS worker rattled after a gun was pointed at her face. The second left an Anchorage woman dead, her husband in jail, and the couple's children in the care of the state.
It also made certain that Dec. 12, 2012, would not soon be forgotten by the agency's Anchorage office.
During the lunch hour, a female OCS worker was stopped at an intersection in midtown Anchorage when she looked up to see her car surrounded by two or three armed men, one of whom pointed a gun in her face, according to Anchorage police. The unidentified worker was rattled, but was able to drive away from the incident after the gunmen -- apparently uncertain whether she was the person they were after -- retreated back to their blue sedan and sped off. The car the unidentified OCS worker was driving was not her own, and the agency believed the gunmen may have mistaken it for another worker's car.
Later that evening, Anchorage police said, a soldier stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson threatened to shoot, "everyone (at the Anchorage office) with an AK-47" if they did not return his daughter.
Anchorage police said David Matthew Lopez's daughter was taken into custody by OCS earlier that day after evidence of abuse was found. Just minutes after OCS reported his threat, police got a 911 call from Lopez claiming he had shot his wife because she had their daughter taken away.
When officers responded to the couple's home, they found Sara Lopez near death, suffering from a gunshot wound to her head. She died a short time later, and Lopez was charged with her murder. When police searched the home on Oklahoma Street, they found many weapons -- including an AK-47.
The next day, OCS began a statewide review of security at its offices, and asked the Alaska Legislature for money to pay for security in Anchorage. "The work our staff does is often difficult, but that doesn't mean they should have to face threats, intimidation, and assault," Morgan said.
The result of that December day, other than the ongoing security review, has been the addition of two former police officers to guard the front door of the Anchorage regional office, which, like most throughout the state, already has a locked door and a receptionist sitting behind safety glass. Morgan said it's difficult to say exactly how many threats are leveled at Anchorage office staff. Anchorage police said its officers respond to two or three assault or serious threat calls there each year.
"That's only the ones where a report was generated, and of course, many less serious threats are resolved or go unreported," said police spokeswoman Dani Myren.
As for the rest of the state, threats like the ones that have closed the Anchorage office or sent workers home early are rare, according to OCS. "But the Anchorage incidents have caused us to look at how we handle security everywhere," Morgan said.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com