NATIVE LAW/FAMILY LAW
Supreme Court of Alaska (2022)
In Mona J. v. State, Department of Health & Social Services, 511 P.3d 553 (Alaska 2022), the supreme court held that while a lack of parental cooperation with the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) does not justify making only passive efforts to provide remedial services to prevent Native family breakup, OCS proved by clear and convincing evidence that it made active efforts to reunite the family. (Id. at 564–65). A mother of two “Indian children” as defined by the Indian Child Welfare Act sought OCS intervention for support in raising her children, as the children had been acting aggressively and the mother had been suffering from substance abuse. (Id. at 556–57). OCS eventually assigned the children to temporary caregivers, but the mother refused to cooperate consistently with OCS’ repeated offers to provide substance abuse and mental health evaluations to attempt to get her children back. (Id. at 557). The situation deteriorated further as the mother became combative toward OCS caseworkers, began dating and moved in with a registered sex offender from whom she refused to separate, and attempted to skirt OCS’ imposed visitation rules. (Id. at 565). Despite this behavior, OCS continued encouraging the mother to restart case planning with OCS and complied with her request to communicate solely through her attorney. (Id. at 566). On appeal of the superior court’s decision to grant OCS’ termination petition, the mother argued that the court overemphasized her own behavior in its analysis of whether OCS made active efforts, and that OCS did not make adequately active efforts to reunite her with her children. (Id. at 562, 566). The supreme court agreed with the mother that OCS overemphasized her actions in its active efforts analysis, clarifying that while a parent’s willingness to engage may be considered, a finding of active efforts must turn on OCS’ actions and not the parent’s response thereto. (Id. at 562). However, the court held that OCS did prove by clear and convincing evidence that it made active efforts, listing dozens of steps OCS took to reunite the family, including coordinating with the children’s temporary caretakers, scheduling multiple mental health and substance abuse assessments, facilitating visitation between the mother and her children, and refusing to halt its efforts even when the mother became abusive toward OCS caseworkers. (Id. at 565). Affirming the lower court’s decision to terminate the mother’s parental rights, the supreme court held that while a lack of parental cooperation with OCS does not justify making only passive efforts to provide remedial services to prevent Native family breakup, in the case at bar OCS proved by clear and convincing evidence that it made active efforts to reunite the family. (Id. at 564–65).