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Ombudsman: Problems with state OCS grievance process

Posted: June 19, 2012 - 12:01am

JUNEAU — The process for filing complaints with the state Office of Children’s Services, or OCS, is cumbersome and ineffective and should be rewritten, an investigative arm of the Alaska Legislature has found.

The state Ombudsman, in a report released Monday, determined that “convoluted” and difficult-to-apply regulations are the root of the problems with the OCS grievance process.

The ombudsman recommends that OCS repeal and replace its regulations and policies and procedures for grievances, and provide employee training on the new regulations and policies. OCS Director Christy Lawton agreed with these points, and according to the report said the agency planned to begin drafting new regulations in July.

Lawton said Monday that she fully agrees the current process is flawed, and not as “user-friendly” as it should be. She said OCS appreciates the time and effort that the ombudsman’s office has put into the issue because it has provided a “good road map” for how OCS can move forward in a way that benefits families and is clearer to employees.

The ombudsman investigates citizen complaints against state agencies and employees. Ombudsman Linda Lord-Jenkins said her office’s eight-month investigation in this matter, arising from problems that her office said investigators observed during past OCS investigations, included surveys of OCS employees and citizens who’d contacted the ombudsman with OCS complaints.

It cites the case of a grandfather, who believed OCS had taken actions that were hurting his grandchild. It says he filed a complaint but didn’t hear back, though OCS is required to evaluate a grievance within three working days of receiving one. After getting a meeting with an OCS manager, at the ombudsman’s urging, he found the agency had no record of his complaint and was told it would be reviewed by a supervisor, but again, he didn’t hear back.

He filed another grievance three months later, but OCS didn’t respond, the report says. After the ombudsman intervened, OCS convened a regional panel, which the report says is the final level of appeal within OCS before a case can go to court. The panel concluded that OCS did not err in handling the grandchild’s case, but the man who filed the grievance never learned the outcome, because the panel said he was not a party to the child’s case, and therefore, not entitled to learn the decision. It also failed to tell him of his legal right to appeal the decision to court, the report said.

“This story is not, unfortunately, an isolated fluke or rare occurrence,” the report states. It found that while most OCS personnel “make efforts to promote fairness and efficiency in the handling of complaints, the structure of the OCS grievance procedure is so cumbersome and inherently difficult to administer that the process frequently fails to provide a fair and reasonable method of recourse to aggrieved individuals.”

A survey of a random selection of employees characterized familiarity of the process as ranging from “complete ignorance to thorough knowledge,” with new employees less likely to be aware of the process, and more experienced employees having greater knowledge, according to the report.

The regulations were rewritten in 2006, following settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by a parent who struggled to clear his name against abuse allegations. OCS, as part of that settlement, agreed to adopt regulations providing greater due process, according to the report.

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