Lawmaker says Alaska child welfare agency practices 'legal kidnapping,' but top official disputes charge

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson has launched her latest salvo at the state agency charged with protecting Alaska's children, saying a grand jury investigation is needed to examine interventions so aggressive they amount to "legal kidnapping."

Wilson's charges are adamantly disputed by the Office of Children's Services, whose director, Christy Lawton, said her agency has huge responsibilities and lacks the money and workforce it needs to perform them well.

"We're an imperfect system filled with people trying to do the best they can but who are also imperfect," Lawton said.

Wilson requested the investigation in a Wednesday statement in which she said OCS has become "a protected empire built on taking children and separating families."

In a Thursday phone interview, Wilson said an investigation could provide a confidential venue in which to examine what she described as illegal actions by OCS.

Asked for examples, she cited cases brought to her office that contained incomplete or unsigned documentation, and other cases in which she said parents weren't being granted effective legal representation.

"I don't think they're following their own process and procedures. And if they did, so many children would not be being removed out of their homes," Wilson said.

But she wouldn't provide a copy of documents she included in the investigation request she sent to district attorneys, saying she's first waiting for their responses.

The number of children in Alaska's foster care system has spiked sharply in the past two years. More than 2,800 children were in the system at the start of this year, up from 1,860 in 2012 — a jump state officials attribute to the heroin epidemic and to a tougher response to reports of abuse and neglect.

Wilson said the spike illustrates "significant, systematic problems with how OCS operates." But Lawton, the agency's director, said that if anything, Alaskans should be worried about cases that OCS examines that result in children being left with their parents.

"What we do is not legal kidnapping," Lawton said in a phone interview.

In cases in which OCS intervenes, Lawton added, children could otherwise "end up with serious injuries, or a fatality. That's the truth."

Wilson discussed a similar investigation a year ago, and Lawton said her agency has made changes to its procedures and documentation in response to Wilson's criticism.

But Lawton also didn't dispute that her workers sometimes slip up. She said case workers handle an average of 30 families when the national recommendation is 12 to 15, and they have a 500-page manual filled with state and federal laws.

And, Lawton said, OCS' often young, inexperienced employees may sometimes feel compelled to remove children from their homes when other options could suffice if they had more time to work with families.

"We know their ability to problem-solve and their time to keep children in the home is diminished," Lawton said. "We're going to err on the side of child safety every single time."

It's difficult to assess Wilson's claims given the available data, said Diwakar Vadapalli, an assistant public policy professor at the  University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Vadapalli studies child welfare and foster care, and also chairs Alaska's Citizen Review Panel, a state and federally mandated board charged with evaluating OCS policies, procedures and compliance with federal law.

The decision to remove children from homes, Vadapalli said, "is really based on risk and safety assessments."

Lawton said her agency is scheduled for a federal audit in 2017.