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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Foster kids’ federal class action against Alaska gets green light

A group of Alaska foster families claim structural issues and lack of funding in the foster care system has led to "destabilizing placement changes."

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) — A federal judge advanced a putative class action brought by 14 foster children against Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services.

Plaintiffs seek “wide-ranging reform” of Alaska’s foster care system, which plaintiffs claim is beset by structural issues that violate their federal statutory and constitutional rights. 

Examples of these structural failures include high caseworker turnover and unmanageable caseloads, which together “prevent OCS from adequately supervising and providing services to the children in its protective custody.”

Children in the agency's care are subjected to “destabilizing placement changes,” according to the plaintiffs. These placement changes are a result of a failure to “recruit, reimburse, and maintain enough foster homes and other community-based placements.” 

Children with disabilities are “often placed in inappropriately restrictive environments,” the plaintiffs say, and the agency does not do enough to meet the needs of Alaskan Native children, who are disproportionately represented in Alaska’s foster care system.

The plaintiffs claim the agency doesn't try to place Alaskan Native children with Alaskan Native foster families. As a result, many Native children end up in non-Native households, “severing them from their culture and their identity.”

Services for mental health or substance abuse are also particularly poor, the plaintiffs claim.

They sued on behalf of themselves and a proposed class consisting of “all children for whom OCS has or will have legal responsibility and who are or will be in the legal and physical custody of OCS.”

Their claims include violations of their substantive due process rights under the 14th Amendment, rights to familial association under the First, Ninth, and 14th Amendments, rights under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Joshua Kindred ruled that plaintiffs had standing to bring the action in federal court. Their complaint, he wrote, “adequately alleged they are suffering a continuing injury or are under imminent threat of future injury. Each named plaintiff is in OCS custody and therefore cannot avoid exposure to the defendants’ challenged conduct.

“The persistent deficiencies identified in the complaint present a threat of repeated injuries connected to those deficiencies. Courts analyzing similar foster care class actions have arrived at the same result,” Kindred wrote.

The children's claims regarding familial association with their parents advance. Members of the ADA subclass have stated a claim for "a failure to implement reasonable modification to avoid unjustified isolation.”

The state sought to dismiss the case, arguing the injunctive relief the plaintiffs seek would undermine state court decisions about foster children’s placements and services, and said plaintiffs should have to litigate the action in superior court instead. 

Kindred was unconvinced, writing that any prospective relief from a federal court does not undermine state court’s competency to conduct individual foster care proceedings or to “independently correct any structural problems state courts themselves identify.”

In addition, state court would be inappropriate because the plaintiffs in the case are not challenging their current services, they are seeking a reform of the Office of Children's Services' system.

“None of the plaintiffs challenge their current placements or current services in this suit. Rather, they seek systemic reform of OCS so that their problems — for example, being shuffled from placement to placement — do not persist,” wrote Kindred.

Alaska argued Kindred must abstain under the precedent of O’Shea v. Littleton, wich instructs federal courts to abstain in cases “where the plaintiff seeks an ‘ongoing federal audit’ of the state judiciary, whether in criminal proceedings or in other respects.”

O’Shea’s “general proposition is that courts 'should be very reluctant to grant relief that would entail heavy federal interference in such sensitive state activities as administration of the judicial system.'”

Kindred says abstention under O’Shea doesn’t apply in this case, however, because plaintiffs’ relief is targeted “directly” at the administration and functioning of the chldren's services agency.

“This feature distinguishes this case from the majority of cases in which O’Shea is applied, which involved plaintiffs who requested federal court oversight of state courts’ operations and procedures,” Kindred wrote.

The state also argued the case should be dismissed because of a violation of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65, which states that “every order granting an injunction . . . must state the reasons why it issued; state its terms specifically; and describe in reasonable detail — and not by referring to the complaint or other document — the act or acts restrained or required.”

Kindred rejected the argument “By its plain terms, Rule 65 governs the scope and content of court orders granting an injunction; it does not impose a heightened pleading standard on plaintiffs seeking an injunction,” Kindred wrote. Plaintiffs need only to provide the “general contours” of an injunction that would provide relief.

“Plaintiffs have done so here by detailing 17 specific actions they request this court order defendants to undertake and one action they request the court order defendants to cease taking,” Kindred wrote.

Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Government, Regional

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