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Tribes suing OCS director and North Star seek quicker court oversight of foster children

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published September 27, 2016

Attorneys for two Southwest Alaska tribal governments presented oral arguments in state Superior Court Tuesday to seek a ruling that minor children can't be held at North Star psychiatric hospital unless a judge has been notified to schedule a hearing.

The attorneys said notification must be prompt to insure a hearing is set within three days of the minor's confinement.

The tribal governments of Hooper Bay and Kongiganak already claimed one victory in the case, when Superior Court Judge Erin Marston ruled in a preliminary injunction in February 2015 that a minor, admitted to the acute psychiatric hospital in Anchorage during an emergency, cannot remain there longer than 30 days without court approval.

The tribes, represented by Alaska Legal Services Corp., had alleged defendants North Star Behavioral Health Center and Christy Lawton, director of the Alaska Office Children's Services, had improperly warehoused foster children at the facility for indefinite periods of time.

In the audience on Tuesday were members of Facing Foster Care in Alaska, whose mission includes helping foster youth, including former residents of the Anchorage hospital.

One was Matthew Brown, who said he was improperly kept at North Star against his will for too long — about a decade until he turned 18.

Brown, 22, watching the proceedings, said he was incorrectly diagnosed as "crazy" by the facility. He said things need to change so children can have a greater chance to avoid treatment they don't need.

"They just controlled my life," said Brown, originally from Dillingham in Southwest Alaska and now living in Anchorage.

Syd Tarzwell, with Alaska Legal Services, asserted to the judge the state and North Star are trying to find "backdoor" ways to avoid legal requirements that courts be notified quickly to schedule a hearing within 72 hours of placement to determine if a minor should remain at the facility.

The law says the state should petition the court before a minor is placed at North Star, and if that can't happen, the facility should notify the court shortly after a child has arrived so the hearing can be set in time, she said.

Steven Bookman, an assistant attorney general, argued the state has immunity from a lawsuit and the tribes don't have standing to bring the case.

"I just don't think the tribes have the power to make this kind of claim," he said.

The tribes brought the case two years ago. They're asking for Marston to issue a summary judgment before a trial is held.

Marston said he would take the question under advisement.

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