In what now seems like a distant past, I was a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) with the Alaska Court System. My caseload was pretty much troubled teenagers from North Slope villages. Most had been in state custody on and off throughout their lives and now were old enough to truly express how those years affected them. It was not pretty. These were children who had already been damaged by their parents and, to some extent, by a state system that kept giving them back to those parents instead of working on a more permanent solution.
All of this is to say that I know North Star Hospital both here and in the Valley way more intimately than I wish I did. And all the problems found by the recent report are hardly new. To any of us who recommended that a child be sent there, it was an act of desperation more than anything else. You see, Alaska doesn’t really care for children with severe mental illness issues that may or may not have been brought on by the horror of their childhood.
Two young men from my old caseload are now in jail, probably for the rest of their lives, because when they needed us to step in and offer them help, we looked around and realized how limited that help was in this state. If you think the stories about the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) are a horror, North Star is but a juvenile version of it.
I’m too old now to ever hope to see the day when this state puts as much money and effort into its most needy and vulnerable residents as it puts into the oil company coffers with their tax breaks. We could probably build multiple facilities and hire staff to fill them all if the staff felt as though they were safe and had the time needed to devote to helping the children in their charge. But if you overwhelm the staff with patients, then all they can sometimes do is breakup fights and hope to stop assaults before they happen.
I find myself wondering if the State of Alaska even cares about these kids. It seems to just throw them away without a second thought. It’s not as though they have many advocates. Poor Les Gara must feel like he is a voice crying in the wilderness as he tries to call attention to the needs of children in foster care. Because, you see, if they are in foster care there is a very good chance they don’t have parents to advocate for them, to take them out of North Star when they are being abused. They have to hope that some social worker – whose case load is probably as overwhelming as that of the counselors at North Start – will find the time to not only get them out of a bad situation but find another placement for them.
Let’s be real here. I’d guess that most of the North Star staff got into their field of work to really help kids, not merely try to help them avoid the next rape. And I’d be willing to bet that most social workers and parents who place children there do so in a last-ditch attempt to get them help.
But, you see, North Star is run by a for profit company and that means their bottom line is often more important than the kids in their facilities. They keep adding kids even when they can’t find the staff to keep the kids safe. But it doesn’t matter. North Star’s parent company still gets paid. And I haven’t heard that they are offering us our money back based on the horror of their facility.
Again, I have to ask, what is wrong with us as a state that we can give multibillion dollar oil corporations a tax break, we can give every family in this state a $3000 PFD check, but we can’t find a way to keep the neediest of our children safe in Alaska. We really should be ashamed of ourselves.