Two years ago, on a warm winter night in Bethel, 14-year-old Randy Beaver went missing after leaving a school dance. He was found a week later, frozen face down in a slough, wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, a black baseball cap, and two earrings in his left ear. Animals had chewed away pieces of his body.
Randy Beaver was a foster child, and his death raises questions about how the state Office of Children's Services selects and monitors foster parents. Last month Randy's father, Vincent Beaver, sued the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and its Office of Children's Services, claiming that OCS' negligence caused Randy's death. Beaver alleges that Arlene Galila, the relative with whom OCS placed his children, was an unsafe foster mother. Galila was too young, he alleges in the suit, and she had both a criminal record and a drinking problem.
Galila denies Beaver's claims, and says she loved and cared for Randy as if he was her own son.
OCS, which has come under criticism in recent years for letting foster children slip through the cracks, won't comment on active litigation, but stories like Randy's have caught the attention of child advocates, lawmakers and lawyers who would like to see changes in the way the agency is organized.
A 'great kid' and an unexpected death
Randy Beaver grew up in Goodnews Bay. By all accounts he was an outgoing and happy child who helped his elders and took care of his younger sisters.
"Randy was a great kid. He had a great sense of humor, and a village full of friends here," said Chris Carmichael, the principal of Randy's school in Goodnews Bay.
Carmichael remembers Randy hauling wood and water for his grandfather when the old man was dying of lung cancer, and recalls that both Randy and his brother Terry, a year older, were always taking care of their younger sisters.
In 2006, the four Beaver children -- brothers Terry and Randy and younger sisters Dancy and Brandy -- moved from the Kenai Peninsula, where they'd been living with relatives, back to their hometown of Goodnews Bay. Their mother, Nancy Beaver (who was convicted of child neglect in 2005), spent most of her time in Anchorage, and their father, Vincent Beaver, was serving a prison term for sexual assault. At first the four stayed with different family members in the village, just as they had when they were younger and their mother left them behind when she went to Anchorage.
A second cousin, Arlene Galila, says she was the only adult who stood up to say she would take care of the children.
"Nobody else wanted those kids," Galila said. OCS placed the four children with Galila, who was 23 at the time, and they moved into the two-bedroom house she shared with her brother and her son Tucker, who is now 5 years old. The family would go for walks together, and Friday evening was pizza night. Randy's favorite was pepperoni.
"We became a family," Galila said. "My son started calling them brothers, and the girls his sisters."
Galila and the five children moved south from Goodnews Bay to hub city Bethel around January 2007. On a November night that same year, Randy and his older brother Terry told Arlene they were going to a school dance. Randy had stopped going to school by that time, Galila said, and was angry and confused about why his parents didn't contact or take care of him. The low that night was 28 degrees.
When Randy didn't come home from the dance, at first Galila thought he might be staying at his girlfriend's house. It wouldn't have been the first time, she said. By the next evening she was worried enough to file a police report.
"Nice parenting," Galila recalls the officer who took her report saying sarcastically.
When Galila started asking Randy's friends what happened, the boys told her they had all been drinking and Randy had split off at some point.
Bethel police found Randy a week later in Brown Slough. Alaska State Troopers confirmed that Randy died of hypothermia, and that there was a significant amount of alcohol in his body when he died.
About six months after Randy's death, the three remaining Beaver children moved out of Arlene Galila's house, a decision Galila said she made in conjunction with OCS. Arlene hasn't kept in close touch with Terry, Dancy, or Brandy, but she knows Terry is attending boarding school in Alaska, and the two girls live with an older half sister somewhere out of state.
"I saw (Randy) when I saw them," she said. "I couldn't handle it anymore."
A 'hard to manage' region
Anchorage Rep. Les Gara, who grew up in foster care and has made improving the foster care system one of his legislative priorities, said while he is unfamiliar with Randy Beaver's story, in general one of the challenges OCS faces is a dearth of foster parents. There are about 2,000 foster children in the state, Gara said, and the shortage of homes means sometimes a child's placement is less than perfect.
"A loving relative is the ideal placement, but not all relatives are loving," Gara said.
In the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, where foster families are scattered across the delta, it's difficult for social workers to check in with children as often as they should.
"It's harder to get from Kwethluk to Bethel than it is to get crosstown in Anchorage," he said.
Couple that with the fact that the state suffers from a general shortage of social workers, Gara said, and you have a lot of social workers burning out quickly.
A 2008 statewide assessment by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families found Alaska's OCS in need of improvement in a variety of areas, including checking up on children, permanency of foster care placements, and training for new foster parents. Gara said foster children should be visited by a social worker at least once a month, and that on that point OCS did not pass its review with flying colors.
That's one of the issues that has Bethel Rep. Bob Herron, co-chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee, seriously considering a recommendation to create a fifth OCS region that would be headquartered in Bethel.
Right now OCS has four regions: one for Anchorage, one for Southeast, one for the north, and one for Southcentral. The Southcentral region, which is headquartered in Wasilla and stretches from Glennallen to Kodiak to Bethel, is the one Herron thinks could be run better if it was divided.
"The people in Wasilla are outstanding bureaucrats, but at the same time Bethel is 400 miles away, so it's pretty hard to manage that from that distance," he said.
The idea of splitting the region was raised by the Citizens' Review Panel, a federally-mandated volunteer group that examines and evaluates OCS policies and practices.
According to OCS spokeswoman Susan Morgan, there are currently 161 children served by the agency's Bethel office who are not living in their own homes. Out-of-home placement is OCS' last option when children can no longer be protected in their own home, and the agency's first choice in those cases is to place a child with a relative.
In both Goodnews Bay and Bethel, a foster parent receives $33.93 a day, or about $1,000 per month, for every child 11 years and younger. The stipend for each child 12 years and older is $40.29 per day, or roughly $1,200 each month.
Morgan said no one at the agency would comment on active litigation, or about general OCS policy for placing and monitoring foster children. She did provide a copy of the agency's practice model, which states: "OCS provides Family Services to families with children remaining in their home as well as to families whose children have been placed in out-of-home care. The identified safety threats and/or high risk and diminished protective capacities will be reviewed with the family, including age appropriate children and youth and tribal representation if appropriate, and will be used to help inform the case plan."
Last year, the state settled two major lawsuits filed against OCS on behalf of foster children. In one, attorneys alleged a long string of failures, including a missed custody filing that resulted in the plaintiff, a boy, being sent home to his abusive father. Later, OCS allegedly knowingly placed an older foster child with a history of violence and molestation in the plaintiff's adoptive home, and he molested the plaintiff. In that case, the state settled before trial for $1.5 million. Another suit, filed on behalf of two boys, netted a settlement of $1.2 million for each boy.
Allegations of negligence
Last month, Vincent Beaver sued -- on behalf of the estate of Randy Beaver -- the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the Alaska Office of Children's Services, alleging that OCS' negligence caused Randy's death. Demetrios Kargas, the Bethel caseworker who placed the Beaver children with Arlene, is also named as a defendant, as well as Karleen Jackson, the commissioner of DHSS at the time, and OCS director Tammy Sandoval.
Kargas no longer works at the Bethel OCS office, and did not reply to a request for comment. Jackson, who left DHSS earlier this year, declined to comment. Sandoval declined comment through Morgan.
Vincent Beaver alleges that OCS didn't look at Arlene Galila's suitability before placing his four children in her care. Besides noting that at that time Galila was a 23-year-old single mother living in a small house, the complaint says Galila has a criminal record, including convictions for writing bad checks and consuming alcohol as a minor, and a drinking problem that was well-known in the village.
The suit also accuses Galila of acting irresponsibly when the four Beaver children were living in her home, saying she shared alcohol with the children and left them alone while she gambled at the village's bingo hall, and was a known bootlegger.
Galila, now 26, denies Vincent Beaver's claims, although according to Alaska State Troopers, Galila was arrested in February for trying to bring two bottles of whiskey on a flight to Goodnews Bay, a dry village.
The complaint also raises the issue that Galila's mother was the Indian Child Welfare Act caseworker in Goodnews Bay when the Beaver children were placed with her, and cites the 2008 federal review as evidence of problems within the agency.
Vincent Beaver declined to comment for this story, and his attorney, Sean Brown, did not reply to requests for an interview. Randy's mother, Nancy, could not be contacted for comment.
"She's in Anchorage last I heard, living on the street or in a home," said Dorothy Galila.
The death of Randy Beaver isn't the first time OCS has had to face tough questions about its decisions to place children with certain foster parents, but at least one has decided she won't ever be able to take in another foster child.
"After I lost Randy, I don't want to get close with a kid again," Galila said.
Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul_alaskadispatch.com.