A foster family who took in an infant boy days after he was born watched as the Office of Children's Services removed the child from the home three years later.

A report from the Alaska Ombudsman details the investigation into a complaint from the family, which was in the process of adopting the child, against OCS saying the department inappropriately removed the child from their home. 

Despite the family's plans to adopt the boy, OCS felt it was better for the toddler to be in another foster home with his siblings. The Ombudsman's report states that while the department did not abuse its discretion in moving the child, OCS gave the court misleading assertions and in some cases, false information.

When the boy's foster family asked for a placement review hearing, they were denied. According to the report, OCS said the foster parents did not facilitate visits with a biological sibling, as well as alleged injuries at the fault of the parents.

"The agency relied on information that was incorrect related to the nature of the injuries the foster child had allegedly experienced in the foster home," Alaska State Ombudsman Kate Burkhart said Monday. "Some of which there was no evidence ever happened."

Burkhart's report states OCS falsely claimed the 3-year-old suffered a broken arm, though there was no evidence other than the case worker's memory of seeing the child's arm in a sling.

In another report of abuse, a dog bite was blamed on the foster parents, which also turned out not to be true. OCS also allegedly failed to investigate or report other injuries, leading to the foster family's request for a hearing to be denied. 

"The agency did not explain in those pleadings to the court that they had investigated those reports of injuries and either found them to be unsubstantiated or had determined that they were historical and been resolved," Burkhart said. "I think that is critical when you're explaining to the court, the situation that you include the full picture and not just part of the picture."

In the report, OCS Director Natalie Norberg said a contributing factor to this complaint may have been that the caseworker was carrying a much larger caseload at the time. After the passage of House Bill 151 in 2018, OCS was able to increase staff, leading to lower caseloads for front-line caseworkers.

On Monday, OCS released the following statement from Clinton Bennett from the Department of Heath and Social Services:

The Office of Children’s Services appreciates the opportunity to respond to the Ombudsman’s findings. 
 
From a systemic perspective, a key take-away from this investigation and an issue OCS is committed to continuing to address is the appearance that OCS does not value or respect our Resource Parents also referred to as Foster Parents. Sadly, we acknowledge that all too often, this perspective is shared by and is the reality experienced by many OCS foster parents.  
 
Alaska’s child welfare system struggles with heavy caseloads and a high turnover rate among frontline workers.  At this time, over 50% of our frontline staff have been on the job for less than a year.  With these odds, the typical OCS case worker is often inexperienced but responsible for a large and complex caseload. While many barriers may prevent OCS from being able to provide a high level of communication and support, the steadfast expectation is for Resource Parents to always be treated with respect.  This includes being sensitive to the bonds and sacrifices made by Resource Families while caring for some of Alaska’s most vulnerable children. Although foster parents do not have a legal right to intervene in the court cases of their foster children, they do have the right to be invited to court hearings and to participate in appropriate OCS meetings acknowledging their important role in the foster child’s life and the valuable information they provide.
 
As a result of this investigation, a mandatory training was provided to all staff in May 2019 aimed at reiterating the importance of cultivating a respectful relationship with resource families. This focus remains active as OCS leadership continues to engage with the Resource Family Advisory Board and works with the Alaska Center for Resource Families to continue to partner on ways to support and elevate the relationship between OCS staff and foster parents. 
 

Burkhart said OCS has worked hard to recruit and support foster families, but this case wasn't an example of that, saying the agency misjudged the family's commitment to their foster child and the level of care they provided.

The full report is available online.

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