OCS grievance system “flawed,” state ombudsman says

The Alaska Office of Children’s Services’ grievance process fails to fairly and adequately respond to citizen complaints.

That’s the finding of an eight-month investigation by the state Ombudsman’s office, which resulted in a 94-page report released today (Monday). The report recommends a complete overhaul of OCS agency regulations governing grievances.

KTOO’s Casey Kelly has more.

Alaska Ombudsman Linda Lord-Jenkins says her office rarely initiates an investigation. Instead, it usually responds to specific complaints lodged against state agencies or employees. But Lord-Jenkins says the number of complaints filed against the Office of Children’s Services in recent years led the ombudsman’s office to take a closer look at the agency’s grievance process.

“In this case we believed that there was a fatally flawed complaint system at Children’s Services,” Lord-Jenkins says.

Ombudsman’s office investigators spent eight months talking to OCS employees and citizens who’d complained about the agency. They found inconsistent and erratic responses to grievances.

“People would file grievances. They could prove to us that they had filed grievances, and they just never got responses, or the grievance was lost,” says Lord-Jenkins.

In her report, Lord-Jenkins places blame on OCS regulations, which she says are just as confusing to department caseworkers as they are to citizens. A grievance filed with OCS can end up in one of two venues. In some instances, an administrative law judge will hear the case, and present a decision to the Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner for action. In other cases, the facts are heard by a regional review panel, which can only issue non-binding recommendations. In either case, the OCS Director isn’t required to be notified.

“So there are a lot of structural problems that just create other problems for individuals who are seeking to enforce their legal rights,” Lord-Jenkins says.

Part of the problem is that OCS and the Division of Juvenile Justice used to be under the same umbrella at the Department of Health and Social Services. While both remain part of DHS&S, the two agencies have been separate for about 10 years. But OCS still uses the same regulations.

Lord-Jenkins recommends severing ties between OCS and Juvenile Justice, and completely rewriting regulations governing the OCS grievance process.

“We have recommended that they make these regs as simple and clear as possible,” says Lord-Jenkins. “That they not include one single word that isn’t necessary; that they make them understandable so that all OCS employees understand them and are aware of them; and so that all citizens who might want to use the grievance process can understand them.”

OCS Director Christy Lawton says agency employees were aware of the problems before the ombudsman’s investigation. She hopes to have new grievance regulations in place by early next year, and says the report provides a good starting point.

“It’s been an area that we have struggled with and have known we needed to work on. But frankly just didn’t have the staff time or resources,” says Lawton. “So the depth to which they really went through it and mapped out all the regulations and even gave us potentially language we can use to draft new regulations, it was very helpful, and I anticipate that we will be using a lot of that.”

The regulations in question are administrative and do not have to be approved by the legislature. However, they will be reviewed by the Department of Law and available for public comment before taking effect.

OCS is the state’s child protection agency, which can take custody of children if staff finds the parents are neglectful or abusive.

The ombudsman’s office is an independent state agency, though for funding purposes it’s considered part of the Alaska Legislature.

Link:
State ombudsman’s report on OCS grievance process [PDF]

Recent headlines

  • dollar bill money macro

    Per diems driving special session costs

    Lawmakers who represent areas outside Juneau receive $295 for each day of the special session. Juneau lawmakers receive $221.25 per day.
  • Caroline Hoover proudly pins an Alaska Territorial Guard medal on the front of her father's parka during an official discharge ceremony held Oct. 17 in Kipnuk, Alaska. David Martin is one of three surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard's Kipnuk unit. A total of 59 residents of Kipnuk, who volunteered to defend Alaska in the event of a Japanese invasion during World War II, were recognized during the ceremony. Kipnuk residents who served with the Alaska Territorial Guard from 1942-1947 were members of a U.S. Army component organized in response to attacks by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. (Photo by Jerry Walton, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs cultural resource manager and native liaison/public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

    16 Alaska Territorial Guard vets to be honored in Anchorage

    Sixteen veterans of the Alaska Territorial Guard will be honored at a discharge ceremony today. Four of them are from Western Alaska.
  • Don Andrew Roguska looks out from an upstairs window of an historic Juneau house he bought in 2016 to restore. Zoning regulations have prevented him from rebuilding in the same style. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

    Juneau mulls relaxing zoning rules for historic houses

    The historic houses in Juneau and Douglas were predominately built by miners and fishermen long before today's zoning was put into place. That's prevented homeowners from restoring or rebuilding homes in these neighborhoods without running into conflict with the city's zoning laws -- a temporary fix may be on the way.
  • Young joins Afghanistan war skeptics in Congress

    Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young wants to know why Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan. He has co-sponsored a bill that would end funding for the war in a year, unless the president and Congress affirm the need for it.
X