How do I work with my caseworker right now?
The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) has suspended all in-person caseworker visits with children and parents, instead conducting all case visits by phone or video call until further notice. OCS is also suspending all travel unrelated to a child’s safety and immediate medical care. Many OCS workers may be working remotely, and not at their office. However, they should still be reachable on their work cells and also should still be checking their work email. Similarly, your caseworker’s supervisor is likely still working remotely and if you cannot reach your caseworker emailing or calling them is still appropriate. The OCS offices have been closed to any visitor without an appointment. As of March 23, 2020, the Department is still holding team decision making meetings, and other administrative meetings, although only telephonically.
OCS has posted answers to parents’ frequently asked questions on their website.
How do I find contact information for the people involved in my case?
Many of the people involved in your case, such as OCS Caseworkers, many Guardians ad Litem, and attorneys with the Public Defender Agency and the Office of Public Advocacy, are state employees. Many will be working from home, and can check voicemail and email. You can find contact information for state employees here.
Some parents are represented by attorneys who are not employed by a state agency. Contact information for those attorneys can be found through the Alaska Bar Association.
Continue to reach out to your attorney regarding any issues you may be having with services, contact with OCS, or visitation, as they can give you specific advice for your situation and may be able to take action on your behalf.
You may need to call in to court hearings involving your case. The Alaska Court System has made the call in numbers for various courtrooms available online. Click on “Telephonic Hearings and Conference Lines” here.
What should I do if I don’t have access to a phone or internet?
Various phone and internet companies have made commitments to make their services more widely available at low or no cost in the COVID-19 crisis. Free services will not be available indefinitely, so you should read the terms of any promotion carefully to know when you will need to cancel or begin paying for the service. For example, GCI is offering free home internet to qualifying new customers through May 31.
Long term low-cost phone or internet service is available through the federal Lifeline program. Under the program, low-income households receiving certain public benefits based on their income, or who are at or below the 135% the federal poverty level can qualify for low-cost phone or internet service. Only one Lifeline benefit is available per household. For example, one person living in a home that shares living and food expenses (even if not related), can receive either broadband or phone service through the program. And, no other person in the household can receive a phone or internet subscription under the program. General information on the Lifeline program is available here.
The Lifeline program is available through several providers in Alaska. Check with providers that serve your area.
How do I complete services or case plan activities right now?
Since many service providers have closed their doors, you may have trouble completing case plan activities. Some service providers have started offering telephonic or video services for existing clients. Your caseworker may be able to help identify appropriate services that are available remotely. If you are being asked to engage in a service but cannot participate in that service because of a COVID-19 related issue (i.e. bus systems not operating or other transportation issues or you are quarantined under the Governor’s shelter in place orders), it is important to let your caseworker, attorney, and tribal representative (when relevant) know that you cannot participate in that service and why. Per federal guidance, OCS still has an obligation to work with you to find alternatives, and support your efforts to reunify with your child.
Some available services and supports are listed on OCS’s answers to parents’ frequently asked questions.
Can I still have visitation with my child right now?
Parents with children in OCS custody still have a right to reasonable visitation. However, what “reasonable” means during this health emergency may change. OCS has suspended in-person visitation between parents and their children in OCS custody. Instead, OCS has asked that foster parents make children available for phone or video calls. OCS has also encouraged foster families and caseworkers to have frequent (daily) phone or video contact. This OCS policy is in place despite federal guidance emphasizing the need for case-by-case planning surrounding visitation and other case activities. The letter to state child welfare agencies and state court systems, emphasizing the need to support parents and children, is available here.
While parents are waiting for normal visits to resume, they can talk to their case worker about creative ways to stay in touch, such as:
- Taping yourself reading a book to your child
- Staying in touch with teachers by email to find out about class assignments, and talking with your child about their online projects and assignments
- Sharing photos by text or email
More information on visitation is available on OCS’s answers to frequently asked questions.
If you are unsatisfied with the level of contact you have with your children at this time, you should contact your attorney to discuss options.
Do I still have court hearings?
All but “priority” Child In Need of Aid proceedings through May 31, 2020 have been suspended. However, some Judges have used their discretion to hold other hearings, so you should confirm with your attorney or the court system to see whether any previously-scheduled hearings have been cancelled or rescheduled. The types of “priority” hearings that are going forward are:
- Temporary Custody (also called Probable Cause) Hearings
- Permanency Hearings
- Placement Review Hearings
- Hearings to Review a Child’s Placement in Secure Residential Psychiatric Treatment Facility
If you have a court hearing, you are encouraged to call the court, rather than appear in person, by a toll-free number. Court call-in numbers are available here (click on “Telephonic Hearings and Conference Lines”). The phone lines have been overwhelmed at times, so if you get a message indicating that the lines are busy , you can hang up and try again. It may take several tries to get through.
The Courts will also consider some important and/or time-sensitive issues upon request. For example, if you are being denied visitation with your child, your attorney can ask for a review.