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Irma E. v. State, Department of Health & Social Services

Supreme Court of Alaska

September 22, 2013

IRMA E., Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & SOCIAL SERVICES, OFFICE OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES, Appellee.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Vanessa White, Judge. Superior Court Nos. 3PA-11-00019/00020 CN

Appearances: Irma E., pro se, Wasilla, Appellant.

Andy Harrington, Assistant Attorney General, Fairbanks, and Michael C. Geraghty, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.

OPINION

BOLGER, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Irma E. asked the State Office of Children's Services to place her granddaughters with her, but OCS denied her request.[1] Irma then repeatedly asked the superior court to hold a hearing to review OCS's decision, but the superior court denied Irma's requests for a hearing. Based on AS 47.14.100(m), we conclude that a family member who has been denied placement of a child in OCS's custody is entitled to a review hearing to contest the OCS placement decision.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In January 2011, OCS took emergency custody of Irma's granddaughters, Nadia and Tia. The girls had been living with Irma, their maternal grandmother, while Nora, their mother, was homeless. OCS removed the girls from Irma's home because of allegations that Irma's son had been sexually abusing his own daughters and had sexually abused his younger sister when she was a minor. OCS was concerned because Irma allowed her son to remain in the home with Nadia and Tia after learning that he was being investigated by law enforcement officials for sexually abusing children. The superior court ultimately determined that the girls were children in need of aid based on Nora's stipulation that they had been placed at risk of sexual abuse. After several placements the girls were placed with a non-relative foster family.

Sometime before April 25, 2012, Irma asked OCS to place the girls with her. OCS denied Irma's request, stating that she had an unspecified prior history with their agency. Irma filed a request for a "review hearing on placement denial" with the superior court, using a form provided by the court system. She alleged that OCS' s action was in error, and she offered to "show proof of this with audio and video." On July 3, 2012, the superior court denied Irma's request by checking a box on the request form marked "DENIED. Good cause for a review hearing has not been demonstrated." The court did not otherwise explain its decision.

Irma apparently renewed her request with OCS, because on October 5, 2012, OCS sent her another denial letter. This letter listed numerous reasons for OCS's denial, including concerns that Irma's personality "place[s] her at risk to fail to appropriately protect the children." The letter referenced Irma's "co-dependent relationship with her adult children" including Nora, which in OCS's opinion rendered Irma's assurance that she would ensure the safety of her grandchildren "highly suspect."

On October 22, 2012, Irma filed a request with the superior court for a hearing on OCS's denial of her latest request for placement, again using a form provided by the court system. Irma alleged that OCS's denial was in error; she claimed to be in possession of new evidence, and she again offered to prove her point "with audio and video." In addition, she asserted that OCS employees had misused their power, broken the law, and lied. OCS had opposed Irma's earlier request for a hearing but filed a non-opposition to Irma's second request and itself requested "the opportunity to set the record straight at a contested hearing."

On November 8, 2012, the superior court began a trial to determine whether to terminate Nora's parental rights to Nadia and Tia. The court had intended to take up Irma's placement request on that date, but it did not do so because it had neglected to notify the parties. However, the court informed the parties that it intended to deny Irma's request for a hearing and that its sole reason for considering a hearing was OCS's request. The superior court then denied Irma's request for a hearing on the record, suggesting that Irma could renew her request if she supplied the court with facts to support her allegations against OCS.

Later that month, Irma renewed her request for a review hearing, again using a court system form, this time supporting her request with a letter to the superior court in which she averred that she was capable of protecting Nadia and Tia from Nora, that she had obtained a domestic violence protective order against Nora, and that she had banned Nora from her home. On December 17, 2012, the superior court denied Irma's request by checking the box ...


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