OCS staff, lawmakers hear heartbreaking stories at community meeting

State Rep. Wes Keller and Alaska Health and Social Services Commissioner Bill Struer listen as Office of Children’s Services Director Christy Lawton addresses a standing-room-only crowd of about 80 parents, grandparents and foster parents at a meeting last week. (K.T. McKEE/Frontiersman)

WASILLA — Some called them “The Gestapo.” Others called them incompetent. One person said they act as if they sit at the right hand of God. Many called them liars.

Everyone seemed to agree that the Alaska Office of Children’s Services is broken and needs fixing before more children and their families are harmed by a system intended to heal and protect them.

Even OCS leaders sitting in front of the more than 80 angry and frustrated parents, grandparents and foster parents gathered Thursday at the Legislative Information Office in Wasilla admitted the system needs a lot of work.

More inside

“I’ve been with OCS for 13 years and I really believe that doing this work is what I’m called to do,” OCS Director Christy Lawton told the standing-room-only crowd gathered near the Wasilla train station on Railroad Avenue. “I really believe strongly in having safe children and strong families, and I believe that all children deserve to be reunited with their families first and foremost, if we can get that to be the case. We recognize we have some challenges, particularly in this Wasilla office. And while we’ve made some efforts to improve things, we have a long way to go.”

The question is, how does that happen with limited resources and an over-worked staff? That’s why Mat-Su state Rep. Wes Keller rounded key players from the state and OCS to listen to more than 23 Valley residents make their pleas for change.

Lawton said that while she believes local OCS caseworkers are a dedicated bunch, they’ve been struggling to do their jobs because of their growing caseloads in one of the fastest-growing communities in the country.

“We need the parents, we need the guardian ad litems, we need the courts and we need the foster providers to create the vision of getting children back home as soon as possible in order for us to do our job well,” Lawton said before people came up one by one to share their stories with her.

Also attending were Keller, Sen. Fred Dyson, Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Bill Struer, OCS Program Administrator Travis Erickson and Southcentral Region Children’s Services Manager Tim Bolles.

“I’m really committed to improving things out here,” Lawton said. “I‘m glad so many of you came out tonight. I’m ready to listen.”

For the next two hours, parents told of having their young children taken away by OCS without being fully informed of the reasons. Several of them told the panel OCS case workers told them they would have to divorce each other if they ever hoped to get their children back.

Many of them claimed the foster homes their children were placed in were much worse than the homes they left. And most said caseworkers and guardian ad litems (GALs) repeatedly lied to make their cases against them. Almost all said OCS caseworkers and GALs were rude, disrespectful and often failed to return calls in a timely manner.

One of those parents was Clayton Halfhill, founder of Parents Against Corrupt Child Services in Alaska.

Halfhill said OCS took his toddler daughter five months ago supposedly because he was smoking marijuana and failing to protect the child from her drug-addicted mother.

“OCS’s goal of reunification of families just doesn’t hold water,” Halfhill said as he fought back tears. “Everything they’ve done is just the opposite. They’re breaking families up, they’re forcing families to separate and taking their children, then setting up unrealistic goals for your family to try to meet this case plan to try to get your children back.”

Halfhill said that although he’s been clean of marijuana for five months now, he’s been called an alcoholic and forced to go to drug and alcohol counseling sessions three times a week for three hours at a time. At $60 an hour, those classes cost nearly $3,000 each month, he said.

He said the additional financial burden has made if difficult to keep up with his other bills.

“The counseling is just this big circle that you guys have that seems endless,” he said. “I was honest with them and said I used to smoke marijuana, but my samples are clean and I don’t associate with anyone who smokes pot anymore. I told them I used to drink alcohol when I was 19 years old and that’s the last time I did. They’re setting up these things to make us fail as parents and I feel that’s unconstitutional and is against our parental rights. They’ve done many, many civil rights violations and they need to be policed because what they’re doing is wrong.”

Halfhill, like other parents who testified, said he believes the foster home his child was placed in is not safe. He said she’s had bite marks, bruises, diaper rash and that the latest injury is a broken leg.

Still, he can’t get his daughter back.

“OCS is downplaying the broken leg, but I guarantee you that if that had happened while she was in my care, they would have come in and charged me with neglect and abuse,” he said. “I just think it’s a double standard. My baby’s never been abused or neglected or harmed by me and I really want her back in my care and I’m asking for your help.”

One mother told the panel her son was taken by OCS when he was less than 4 weeks old after she and her husband got in an argument. He is now 20 months old and has been in four foster homes already.

“They put him in one where this woman was doing drugs and her husband tried to stab her in front of my child, choke her out,” she said. “She also tried to put her truck in a ditch with my son in the car and they couldn’t find my son for two days. My son is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. He used to be happy-go-lucky and never cried. I can show you pictures now where he’s crying and angry. They stole my son from me and that’s not fair. We need help.”

Yet another mother said she was coerced 11 years ago into giving up her parental rights when she was too young to understand the ramifications. Her children ended up with Anya James, the Anchorage foster mother who is now in jail for allegedly starving and abusing several foster children over several years.

“This woman nearly killed my kids and I can’t even get custody of them,” she said. “They took our babies when they were born. At the time, we had nowhere to stay. But we’re doing much better now and should be able to get them back.”

A woman named Misty said her children were taken from her three years ago after she became addicted to painkillers following a car accident. She said she’s followed every directive given to her by OCS — including successfully completing drug treatment.

She said that although OCS and Denali Family Services have both said she should get her children back, her GAL has told the court she is not ready.

“Why does the guardian ad litem have so much control?” she wondered. “This woman has really ruined our lives. When is enough enough?”

Sen. Dyson, of Eagle River, said after hearing the stories that he and his wife had about 20 foster children over the years and thought they were doing a good thing when they helped reunite three of them with their biological families.

They found out later those children never should have been released back to their parents because they were severely abused. One was even killed.

“We looked at autopsy pictures and wept,” Dyson said. “We can beat up on these folks for preemptively taking kids out of families, but I can tell you there are a lot of cases where there have been reports of harm and the kids have been terribly abused and died afterward. So it’s a two-edged thing. There are two sides to every story.”

Lawton and Keller urged everyone present to fill out a form with their names and contact information so they can reach them later to help with their cases. Lawton said she planned on having larger community meetings in the coming weeks and asked all those concerned to continue to be patient and to help improve the system.

“It’s difficult to listen to your stories,” Lawton said. “Know that I do hear you and many of them are going to stick with me for a while. There are many things we’re hearing that are not uncommon in other OCS offices as well.”

Contact K.T. McKee at kate.McKee@frontiersman.com or 352-2252.

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