PHOTO BY MARY LOCKMAN / Frontiersman.com

Debbie McCarthy gives testimony at the “Share Your OCS Story” meeting hosted by Representative Tammie Wilson on Jan. 21 at the Wasilla Legislative Information Office.

WASILLA — In the middle of her testimony, Valley resident Debbie McCarthy turned around to address the people gathered at the “Share Your OCS Story” last week in Wasilla.

“I’m sorry, ladies,” she said. “You’re not gonna get your kids back. They’re in the business of closing cases, and getting adoptions.”

McCarthy said she has already spent close to $100,000 trying to get custody of her grandchild ever since the Alaska Office of Children’s Service removed the child from her daughter’s home.

“This lady right here, my heart aches for you,” she said, addressing a young mother who has no funds to mount a legal defense, who had testified earlier in the meeting.

Since getting involved in her grandchild’s case, McCarthy has become an advocate for grandparents’ rights. She’s joined protests calling for an end to what she sees as OCS overreach.

She’s tried to raise awareness about what she says is an inherent flaw in the OCS system – the use of federal dollars to incentivize adoptions.

“It starts out with no evidence, the parents think they’re getting their kids back on the first TDM (Team Decision Making meeting), and then find out the child is already in a foster family,” she said during her testimony.

After her testimony, McCarthy granted permission for her name and quotes to be used in the Frontiersman.

“There is no money on the reunification side,” McCarthy said. “The big money is on closing and adoptions. Parental rights, to them, are just an inconvenience that are in the way.”

Christy Lawton, the director of OCS, said she listened in to the Jan. 21 meeting via teleconference. It was the first of several hosted by Alaska House Representative Tammie Wilson. The meetings are being held through late February.

Lawton said the state does get federal dollars for placing kids in foster care in a permanent home.

But, she said, it doesn’t affect family reunification.

“There’s this fallacy that workers somehow get bonuses for adopting kids or removing kids,” Lawton said. “Nothing like that happens. What the federal government does do, which I don’t necessarily agree with, when kids are in foster care, they want to ensure kids don’t grow up in foster care.”

Federal dollars go to states in response to those states getting foster kids into permanent homes in a timely manner, once it has been determined there is no other place for those children to go, Lawton said.

“They evaluate us on how timely we are able to get kids to adoption once that’s the identified goal,” Lawton said, “and they provide adoption or guardianship incentive dollars to states. If we do a good job at timely adoptions, we get some additional incentive funds every year that gets rolled back into the program to support foster care.”

But Lawton said the goal starting out is always reunification of the child with his or her family.

Representative Wilson said she started the “Share Your OCS Story” meetings to gather testimony from Alaskans after years of following up on parents’ and grandparents’ reports about problems at the state agency, to little avail.

“Calls. A lot of calls,” Wilson said about how she ended up getting involved in probing OCS practices.  “Not just from my district, but from other districts. And the stories started matching. If they were married at the time an issue came up, almost always the man needed to move out, then they might let the mother keep the children – to ones who brought their case plans, they had it completed, we reviewed it, yet they were only still getting once a week supervised visits. They weren’t any closer a year later to getting their children back.”

The State Dept. of Law previously denied a request from Wilson’s office for a grand jury investigation into claims that OCS had dropped the ball on parental reunification, or had in some cases removed children from homes without cause.

The matter was referred to the State Ombudsman and a Citizens’ Review Panel.

Wilson said information from the “Share Your OCS Story” meetings will be brought to state legislators, and the governor.

Lawton said OCS has already made changes to its procedures based on Wilson’s work. She said the agency now uses carbon-copy triplicate forms for caseworkers to bring out into the field, so that they don’t have to go back and forth from office to home visits, making copies and getting signatures.  

Lawton said OCS faces a set of difficulties related to its resources that contributes to problems within the agency.

“I think almost all the challenges we have in terms of our ability to comply with every policy and state statute on every case every time, largely all tracks back to the workforce challenges we have,” Lawton said. “I think if we had the ideal caseload per caseworker, and we didn’t’ have the turnover, I think our ability to meet the needs of our clients and ensure that we are consistently following policy and doing best practices, it would be a whole other world.”

At the Wasilla meeting, parents and one local pastor who had been asked to provide support to a family, testified that they’d seen logistical nightmares with the family reunification process that made it difficult to impossible to get their children back.

Some said they’d had to deal with false statements made by caseworkers about the family or its circumstances.

“Fraudulent claims of words and actions by the parents,” was how a local pastor put it. “Complete fabrications. The whole case was able to be built on fabrications, and we weren’t able to get before a judge before the thing was already decided.”

Wilson said she’s advocated for families whose cases were based “entirely on hearsay” – she gave an example of a call from a neighbor being made about a loud fight between parents at a time when the children weren’t present, leading to an assumption being made that domestic abuse was going on, leading to an OCS visit and removal of children from the home.

“Because it’s hearsay and you don’t have to have proof, there’s a lot of judgment going on,” Wilson said. “Versus what’s supposed to happen is, there’s supposed to be an imminent threat of safety to the child, otherwise you’re supposed to be put safety conditions in place to make sure everything is OK.”

Lawton said children’s safety is a top priority for OCS. She said the agency may, like any organization, have an “occasional bad egg” and said that, “When we identify that we deal with it.”

But Lawton said that, when children are being removed from homes in Alaska, it’s because they’re in need of protection.   

“The kinds of cases where we’re taking emergency custody, we remove and go to court, and then a judge says you had probable cause or didn’t,” Lawton said. “The kind of cases we’re talking about are serious, like when a hospital calls reporting there are broken bones; calls from law enforcement where there is domestic violence where parents are arrested and or become unavailable; homes where workers show up and all the adult caretakers are intoxicated and we really can’t ascertain, you know, that’s not the time to try to figure out relatives when they’re intoxicated and simply can’t be interviewed.”

Lawton said she doesn’t believe that parents don’t know what’s expected or required of them in order to follow their case plans, and that just because the paperwork is unsigned or imperfect in their files, doesn’t mean they haven’t seen it.  She said that parents not dealing with their addiction is a common issue when it comes to case plan completion.

“I think we’re intervening with the right families,” Lawton said. “I don’t think we’re intervening with families that don’t need us. In that I feel good. The challenge comes in once we’ve intervened, all the issues around workforce, our ability to give the parents and children everything they need, to make the most of it.”

Representative Tammie Wilson hosts “Share Your OCS Story” meetings, open to anyone who wishes to testify, on Saturday, Feb. 4 in Anchorage Legislative Information Offices from noon to 4 p.m., with three more meetings throughout the state through February. Callers can participate by calling 1-844-586-9085.  

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