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HomeColumnsDavid Ignell: To reform Alaska OCS, we must first reform the judiciary

David Ignell: To reform Alaska OCS, we must first reform the judiciary


My previous articles in Must Read Alaska about the Office of Children’s Services have generated several positive meetings with legislators and their staff interested in resolving these systemic problems.  

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They’ve acknowledged the repetitive patterns of shocking behavior by OCS that have plagued Alaskan families for decades. They realize any further delay to meaningful reform will result in more families being destroyed and some children being trafficked.

State officials from OCS, Department of Law, and Office of Public Advocacy are a different breed, though. They typically don’t return my calls or respond to emails. On the rare occasions I’ve had an opportunity to talk with them, they’ve walked away or hung up the phone.  

These executive branch bureaucrats are supposed to be public servants, but instead are prone to retaliate when their actions are questioned. They live in an echo chamber insulated by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funds which buys them loyalty. Working together, these three agencies have suppressed our constitutional rights to liberty and justice with their greed for more money and power.   

Decades of failures by some legislatures and governors to reform OCS suggest we should redirect our focus to reforming the judiciary branch. It’s common sense after all.  Laws and policies mean nothing when our judges ignore them and get away with it.  

Bad judicial behavior – the norm

Take AK Mom’s case for example. Her five children were taken by OCS one night under an unsubstantiated claim of “emergency medical abuse.” Existing laws to protect the family’s rights were blatantly ignored by the judiciary. A judge was required to make a finding, within 48 hours, that there was a substantial chance each of the five children had to be removed immediately to protect their lives.  

No judge did that though, likely because there was absolutely no evidence to support OCS’s actions.

Two years later, the judiciary still hasn’t forced OCS to prove anything. In April, a trial started but Judge Kristen Stohler gave the entire two weeks of allotted time to OCS. AK Mom was not given a chance to present any evidence in her favor. She’s had expert witnesses on standby for over a year, ready to testify she did nothing wrong, but the judiciary keeps stringing them along.    

What AK Mom’s family and supporters hoped would be an opportunity for justice ended up as a cruel and expensive tease. Her legal bills increased by $20,000. Judge Stohler appears to have joined forces with OCS to play the delay game when the truth makes our government look bad. 

The trial won’t resume until mid-July. After a few days it will be put on pause again and not start again until late October. A judicial system that denies a family a chance at justice and reunification for two years is an outrage, but stringing out the trial an additional seven months is pure viciousness. 

Most of AK Mom’s kids were in attendance in the courtroom throughout the two weeks to support their mother. They wanted to go home but that critical fact meant little to Judge Stohler.  

What the public is watching is a slow moving trainwreck with five innocent kids on it. The judiciary can stop it but won’t.   

The harm to AK Mom’s family grows daily. The day after the trial was put on hold George ran away again from another foster home. He was gone all night, but no one from OCS bothered to inform AK Mom. She found out about it the next morning from a friend who sent her an APD Missing Juvenile Alert.

It’s practically useless under our existing system to file a complaint against the judges involved, and they know it.  Any complaints go into the black hole known as the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct, an agency notorious for protecting judges behind their closed doors.   

Good judicial behavior – a rare glimmer of hope

Two weeks ago, Alaskans got a glimpse of what judges should do when OCS breaks laws. Bethel Superior Court Judge Terrance Haas showed Alaskans he not only cares about families but was courageous enough to face down OCS. Haas issued an incredibly rare public sanction against OCS for their callous behavior towards a 12-year-old girl in their custody.  

This girl had expressed suicidal ideations, causing OCS to remove her from a foster home and admit her into a hospital. OCS kept her there alone for a week. They didn’t bother to notify the girl’s parents, tribe or guardian ad litem. They just left her there, by herself, for a week — a 12-year-old thinking of suicide.  

As usual, OCS’s actions violated several laws but for once a judge called them out. His order drew attention to one of the primary problems in our foster system — OCS, DOL, OPA and the judiciary operate in a largely secret environment, creating outcomes the public and the Legislature are not aware of.  

Judge Haas will likely need legislative and public support to hold on to his job. OCS is renowned for retaliating against people who stand up to them, and the Bethel judge just did that — in a major way. Even though Haas’s next retention election isn’t until 2028, OCS may not wait that long to retaliate. OCS has extremely deep pockets and influence over many individuals; some eager to curry the favor of a powerful bureaucracy, and others who can be manipulated by fear.

Watch your back Judge Haas; false claims against you or your family may surface out of nowhere.

Judges like Terrence Haas are rare, but Alaskan families put at risk by OCS misconduct desperately need more like him. Fortunately, the Legislature has the power to ensure federal and state laws protecting families are upheld by more competent, knowledgeable, and humanistic judges like Haas.    

A few months ago, Sen. Mike Shower and Rep. George Rauscher introduced similar bills seeking judicial reform. SB 31 and HB 82 quickly got bogged down in committee, but Chairs Sen. Scott Kawasaki and Rep. Sarah Vance can make up for lost ground by working on them over the summer.     

I submitted comments and proposed amendments to both bills back in March. One amendment called for the creation of specialized family courts with judges selected by non-partisan elections. Former Attorney General for Gov. Hickel, Edgar Paul Boyko, was a very outspoken proponent of legislatively created family courts towards the end of his career.    

My next article will focus on these proposed amendments and Boyko’s recommendations as a viable solution to a decades long nightmare.      

David Ignell was born and raised in Juneau, where he currently resides. He holds a law degree from University of San Diego and formerly practiced as a licensed attorney in California. He has experience as a volunteer analyst for the California Innocence Project, and is currently a forensic journalist and author of a recent book on the Alaska Grand Jury.



  1. Very well articulated, however.

    Mr. Ignell should know very well that allegations are not evidence and circumstance is not cause.

    I sense the reason why Mr. Ignell retired from the practice of law.

    However, seen in the light of opening comments, it is exactly the kind of thing you expect to hear from an ambulance-chaser or someone of that ilk.

    The pity is, he may be on the right side of history, but his attorney-ish approach does the cause no favors.

    I have no doubt he is aware of other issues that contribute to OCS’s poor performance at times, however, far be it for him to aid “opposing” counsel with the actual facts on the ground.

    • The problems with OCS are well known. Questioning his motives and his legal capabilities do not change this.

      But at the end of the day, nobody really gives a damn about the natives.
      So if the state wants to take their children without challenge or repercussions, WTH?

  2. Another well written piece by Mr. Ignell. I would only add that not only does the judiciary need to be gutted and revamped but also the legislative and executive branches.

  3. And our useless lump of a governor is out of state playing carbon credit Ponzi.

    Alaska will never be a “real” state until we nuke our judiciary and start over.

  4. I’m just curious, Is Mr Ignell a member of the bar in Alaska? California? Anywhere? I’m curious because the only way the judiciary is ever going to see much needed reforms in Alaska is if members of the bar cause the reform…Clearly, the electorate cannot manage to get it done and neither can the Legislature.

  5. See! Why more common sense and conservative leaders can’t run away when the going got tougher to win races if you are a conservative or moderate? As well as be to the downfall of the Leftist Democrats whom can’t afford see its opposition flee, after all they will follow conservatives to places safer, more prosperous, and more orderly since their policies made their towns unaffordable and unsafe and boring. Hahaha . If conservatives and moderates flee you leave those who can’t fight back, or they don’t know how, at a wicked peoples mercy. Besides every place as trouble and corruption, might as well stay put and band together to pushback together, and fix your current broken home as Steve from Kenai said to another reader, ‘please don’t move to Kenai, we have enough refugees, stay on anchorage and fix your broken home. Amen! Just like a relationship or a marriage your second relationship has just as many problems as your first one. Hahaha.

    • The angels forcibly removed Lot since he, being a good guy and all, was way willing to stay and “help”. Decisions are eventually medical ones rather than sexual ones sometimes even in AK, Solly.

  6. Kudos to Senator Shower, Representative Rauscher and their staff for SB 31 and HB 82.

    Remember SB 14 that was introduced in the 2022 Legislative Session? SB 14 died in Finance. Why?

    Alaska needs Judicial Reform. The review and selection of judges needs to be changed. The Alaska Bar is a private organization and they should not be selecting the four potential names that go to the Governor.

    2016 former Representative Tammie Wilson filed a complaint against OCS. That case is still open in an Anchorage court. 2020 Representative Tammie Wilson took a position to investigate and audit OCS. 2023 Presentation by Alaska’s Citizens Review Panel Report and Kim Guay from the Department of Family and Community Services OCS

    Alaska needs judicial reform but how will Governor Dunleavy make that happen today? Alaskans need a remedy to correct the wrong that a judge has done.

    Chief Justice Winfree severed every Alaskans Constitutional right to go before a grand jury with evidence regarding the public safety and well-being (SCO 1993). What recourse does a citizen have to correct a wrong that a judge has done? What does the remedy and reunification of a family look like when a judge does not follow the Alaska Statutes, best interest of a child, a family plan, and adverse affects of childhood trauma to name just a few.

    Thank you Judge Haas. Thank you Mr. Ignell for the article.

  7. Another well written article. Judicial reform and OCS reform go hand and hand. Thank you Judge Haas for having the conviction to stand up and bring OCS to light as much as you could. You now have many people behind you and supporting you. My prayers also go out to you along with the prayer that other Judges do what they can to stand up for Alaska’s children.
    And AKMom, where is her and her children’s due process? Two years and only one part of court done? No court time? A US Supreme Court just ruled in favor of upholding ICWA laws. How is it OCS thinks they are above this? Why do they think they get to ignore ICWA?
    We ALL have to take a stand and fight for our children.
    Keep writing David Ignell, keep exposing, keep the corruption in the light. Maybe at some point one of those people who read your articles will stop agreeing OCS is a broken system and actually do something.
    Actions speak louder than words. God Bless

  8. This article by Mr. Ignell that references AK Mom is the truth citizens of Alaska. This family has been put through hell in the last two years. Think about it, two years to childs is a lifetime. Much less being shifted from foster home to foster home. Each home having different circumstances, different rules,different expectations and different schools. How can we expect that children will thrive and advance under those circumstances? Especially children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. These children need consistency in all aspects of their lives.
    Where is due process in this case? Where is a parents and children’s right to a speedy trial? Why should any family have to deal with OCS for this long before it gets before a judge? Breaking up a trial like this is insane. Cases involving children should be first priority above criminal cases. Or, just maybe there should be a separate juvenile/family
    court established.
    Where is all the money from the Federal government going? Doesn’t it make sense to appoint more judges to children’s services so that nightmares like this one are cleared up swiftly? Do any citizens of Alaska or any other place in America deserve to be treated like this? Should any children be treated like this?
    Imagine how each of these children, now teenagers, are managing to navigate their way through life at this point. Running away from foster homes multiple times,removed from their faith based home and their faith based school. Away from their mother, relatives and friends.
    How would you feel if you saw your son’s face on an APD alert and you were not notified of his disappearance?
    Kudos to Judge Hass- Keep standing up for the children Your Honor. Judge Hass is doing his job to administer justice and is not swayed by OCS suppositions or excuses. What if that 12 year old young lady was your daughter? It would certainly be a cold day before my daughter would be left alone in a hospital with no support system to be had. The comforting of nurses does not replace a mom or dad being by her side.
    Keep up the good work Judge Hass and you too Mr. Ignell. Reform is on its way OCS!

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