Alaska’s Office of Public Advocacy has reversed course, telling an Anchorage judge it could take on 97 additional public guardianship cases after claiming since April it did not have the capacity to take on new cases due to a staff shortage.
The Office of Public Advocacy, or OPA, announced in April that it would not take any new public guardianship cases until its guardians’ caseloads dropped from around 100 to 60. But the staffing challenges in the agency weren’t new. For years, OPA had contended with public guardianship caseloads far above national standards, public documents show.
The agency last year asked a judge to sign off on the transfer of dozens of its clients to a fledgling private guardianship agency. The private guardian, Tom McDuffie, later admitted he had not fulfilled the basic duties of a guardian for some of his clients, allowing them to lose benefits on which they depended or go months without interaction with their guardian.
After the Daily News reported on mounting allegations of negligence, McDuffie surrendered his license last month, citing a medical crisis. Anchorage Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth ordered OPA to resume responsibility for many of the clients they had sought to offload to McDuffie, in addition to other clients the courts had assigned to him. OPA Director James Stinson initially said the agency would refuse to take some of the 97 cases and vowed to fight the appointments in court.
But in a letter sent Monday to Alaska Courts, Stinson said, “OPA made the decision not to challenge any of the appointments.”
Stinson wrote in the letter that even as his agency would accept McDuffie’s 97 cases, OPA would keep in place the moratorium announced in April on accepting new guardianship cases.
“Any capacity that was gained during the moratorium is no longer there,” Stinson wrote.
The question of whether it is legal for OPA to continually decline appointments in new guardianship cases — leaving indigent Alaskans vulnerable to homelessness and the loss of benefits — remains unanswered by the Alaska Supreme Court. OPA has contended that getting appointed to additional cases would cause the public guardian system to “implode.”
After the announcement of the moratorium on new cases, six additional public guardian positions were created. Stinson said those positions were approved on a one-time basis by the governor’s office outside of the typical budget cycle, using existing funding.
But more than six months after the positions were approved, Stinson said only three of those positions are filled. The other three are “being actively recruited,” Stinson wrote.
“If OPA ends the moratorium before resources are in place, it will destroy the long-term solution,” Stinson wrote.
In the meantime, OPA has “secured funding for a new overtime policy for the public guardian section,” Stinson said. Neither Stinson nor Dunleavy’s spokesperson provided details on the policy and the funding for it.
Asked if Dunleavy would include additional funding to address the public guardians’ caseloads in his upcoming budget proposal, due Dec. 15, Turner said the budget “is still being finalized.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that six additional public guardian positions were added to the budget by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and through a previously adopted bill related to domestic violence. That was incorrect. The story has been corrected to reflect that the positions were approved outside of the regular budget process.