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.

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

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