The tragic story of AK Mom’s family exposes many problems with our foster care system. One such problem is unlawful behavior within the Office of Children Services (OCS) that makes children more vulnerable to human traffickers. Another is the protection that the Department of Law (DOL) and the Alaska Court System provides OCS instead of families.

My last article about AK Mom’s family focused on the vulnerability of “Lawrence,” after OCS removed him and his four siblings from their home. To recap, over a 2.5-year period OCS moved Lawrence around the state into 24 different “homes”. Running out of options, they placed him in two homeless shelters, first in Juneau and later in Anchorage.

DOL fought to keep Lawrence in the Anchorage shelter and away from his loving mother even though the shelter was known to be vulnerable to traffickers. Spending nights at the shelter, Lawrence would roam the streets of Anchorage alone during the day. He was an easy target for traffickers 24/7 but OCS and DOL didn’t care.

Similarly, my first two articles about AK Mom’s family focused on Lawrence’s older brother “George” and his increased vulnerability after running away from two different foster homes. In the first story he was miraculously found after walking for 20 miles. In the second story he walked over 10 miles in the dark in freezing temperatures.

AK Mom is a Republican who attends political events and has access to elected officials that many other parents do not. Those contacts haven’t generated much justice for her family, though.

In both instances George was running away from foster homes where he felt unloved and not understood. He was running towards his real home with AK Mom where he was loved and understood.

Altogether, AK Mom’s kids ran away from their foster care homes at least 16 times. In several instances it was not reported they were missing.

AK Mom is a Republican who attends political events and has access to elected officials that many other parents do not. Those contacts haven’t generated much justice for her family, though.

AK Mom has pleaded for help from top Republicans in the executive branch including Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his Deputy Chief of Staff Rachel Bylsma, Lt. Governor Nancy Dahlstrom, OCS consultant Tammie Wilson, and Dunleavy’s former Mat-Su area Director Todd Smoldon. They haven’t helped her, even though it’s Dunleavy’s duty under Article III, Sections 16 and 24 of our State Constitution to supervise OCS and DOL and ensure they faithfully execute our laws.

AK Mom has also pleaded for help from many powerful Republican legislators including Speaker of the House Rep. Cathy Tilton (R-Wasilla), House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) and Vice-Chair Rep. Jamie Allard (R-Eagle River), House Health and Social Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Prax (R-Fairbanks), and Senate Health and Social Services Committee Chairman Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla). They haven’t been able to help either.

Alaska Native children are especially vulnerable to traffickers, particularly in Anchorage.

I’ve experienced similar frustration trying to get state officials to address these issues. Dunleavy, Tammie Wilson, and OCS Commissioner Kim Kovol won’t talk with me. Most of the legislators I’ve approached have been willing to talk. Some have even thanked me for writing these stories. They’re aware of AK Mom’s family and express concern, but they claim the situation is beyond their control.

AoHofter recent events in the State House maybe their attitudes will begin to change.

Last week was designated as “Justice in Human Trafficking Week” by the Alaska House Majority. A press release by the Majority announced the House Judiciary Committee (HJC), chaired by Vance, would be holding hearings on trafficking throughout the week.

On Jan. 24, the HJC heard testimony from Tami Jerue, the Executive Director of the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center and Bryan Barlow, the Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Public Safety.

Jerue testified that Alaska Native children are especially vulnerable to traffickers, particularly in Anchorage. Responding to a question from Vance, Jerue noted that those in foster care are even more susceptible. They want attention and traffickers are good at feigning affection or understanding. Coercion is preceded by persuasion.

About 31 minutes into the hearing, Rep. Craig Johnson (R–South Anchorage) brought up the issue of runaways and data, suggesting that 70% of them are approached by traffickers. He said, “it seems to me the minute you run away you are in danger” of being trafficked. Johnson asked if they were “missing the boat by not treating runaways as more of an endangered category.”  My ears perked up.

Does this bipartisan platform have sufficient roots to take on OCS and its powerful allies?

Jerue responded by agreeing a runaway is “absolutely 100% more in danger” of being approached by a trafficker and being manipulated. Barlow also agreed, saying reports of runaways get their attention and they treat it with “utmost importance.”  He called it a “priority for public safety.”

Vance asked Barlow how soon a runaway should be reported. Barlow responded “immediately” and said emphatically that waiting 24 hours is “completely false.”  With every minute that goes by the danger of a runaway kid being trafficked increases.

The final speaker at the hearing was Kelsey Potdevin of the Alaska Native Justice Center. Potdevin identified several risk factors including high numbers of homeless and runaway youth. She said Native youth at shelters like Covenant House (which housed Lawrence for 31 consecutive nights) are disproportionately affected.

After Potdevin’s presentation, Rep. Rep. Andrew Gray focused his colleagues’ attention on those risk factors. He expressed his belief there are “upstream things we could be doing to prevent people from being vulnerable. We’re focusing so much on catching the bad guys.”  Potdevin agreed wholeheartedly with Gray.

I was encouraged by the concern shown by Vance, Johnson and Gray for kids like AK Mom’s. Does this bipartisan platform have sufficient roots to take on OCS and its powerful allies? Surely, they can’t ignore the 16 times that AK Mom’s kids have run away from their foster homes. In the minds of Barlow and DPS, runaways are a priority for public safety.

At least one Anchorage child subject to OCS custody has been trafficked and then murdered.

When Tammie Wilson was a Republican legislator from North Pole, she thought like Gray. After hearing from parents around the state, Wilson identified OCS as a huge risk factor. Wilson focused her attention upstream, saying “poor parents are often targeted to lose their children because they do not have the means to hire lawyers and fight the system.”

Wilson realized that “the separation of families is growing as a business because local governments have grown accustomed to having federal dollars to balance their ever-expanding budgets.”  She called for a grand jury investigation to follow the money trail left by a “system that makes a profit for holding children and bonuses for not returning the children.”

I firmly believe the financial motivations identified by Wilson played a huge role in OCS breaking up AK Mom’s family. Laws that exist to protect her children were no obstacle to OCS. The DOL covered their tracks, and the judges looked the other way.

Substantial evidence exists that OCS and DOL didn’t care whether their actions resulted in AK Mom’s five children being highly vulnerable to traffickers. This mindset is precisely what Gray and his colleagues need to zero in on while they determine how many other children OCS has needlessly exposed to trafficking. They need to quantify this risk factor.

An investigatory grand jury advised by an independent special prosecutor is critical … to understand the full extent that OCS makes foster children more vulnerable to trafficking

At least one Anchorage child subject to OCS custody has been trafficked and then murdered. On the morning of June 8, 2021, Katelynn Shelhamer’s lifeless body was found at the Nunaka Valley Baseball Fields.

Shelhamer reportedly had been trafficked since the age of 14. She had just turned 18, and free from OCS control, had taken steps to turn her life around. Important questions remain unanswered. Was Shelhamer murdered by her trafficker? Did OCS know about her trafficking and take any steps to prevent it?

Last year I testified about Shelhamer’s murder and the ongoing tragedy of AK Mom’s family before the House and Senate Committees on Health and Social Services. Afterwards I spoke to their chairmen, Prax and David Wilson, respectively. At Wilson’s invitation, I supplied supplemental testimony with facts supporting a specific grand jury investigation into OCS’ role in making our children more vulnerable to trafficking.

Two weeks later I wrote an article quoting former Tribal Judge Debra O’Gara who had recently testified in the House saying, “foster children are at a high risk of being targeted by traffickers.”  My article discussed Shelhamer and the dangerous environment that OCS was putting AK Mom’s children in.

Neither committee took action to protect AK Mom’s children. Subsequent to those hearings, each of her four oldest children ran away from their foster homes again. How many more children will OCS make vulnerable to traffickers before the Legislature takes action?

During the most recent hearing, Johnson admitted ignorance on the issue of runaways, not knowing how to address the issue or who to address it to. Jerue testified as well to the lack of meaningful data.

An investigatory grand jury advised by an independent special prosecutor is critical for Johnson and his HJC colleagues to understand the full extent that OCS makes foster children more vulnerable to trafficking. It would be irresponsible for the HJC to rely on any testimony from OCS or DOL officials. The grand jury is best designed to use its subpoena, immunity and reporting powers to get to the truth and make meaningful recommendations to the public.

Such an investigation won’t occur unless the Legislature acts to support the grand jury’s independence and free them from the control of the Alaska Supreme Court and the Attorney General, who have colluded to protect OCS from investigation.

The motto of the House Majority is “Let’s Bring Transparency Back to Alaska.” The Majority has the power to free grand juries from their bondage and usher in a new era of transparency in government. The bipartisan seeds planted by Vance, Johnson, Gray and other members of the HJC can then blossom into a bountiful garden that sustains and nourishes our children.

The views expressed here are those of the author.

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OPINION: Will Alaska lawmakers free Grand Juries to investigate OCS’ and human trafficking?

David Ignell
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.


  • DaveMaxwell says:

    Not if dunleavy, globalist communist sex trafficker, child mutilator , has his way!!!!

  • Elizabeth Henry says:

    It is really awful, disgusting even, the ineptness of so much of our government, yet they receive the highest of wages, benefits and retirement. Every one of the OCS employees connected to this debacle should be charged with child endangerment and abuse. Likely also a few of the foster homes, Too many are in it for money. Add also the unresponsive legislators. Baloney It is ‘out of their hands’. That is a gross cop out. They are lazy and more intent on feathering their own nests. OCS broke up a functioning family unit and basically destroyed five children in the process. And our legislators and Governor don’t seem to think it merits any attention. More important to put slot machines onto state ferries and provide defined benefits to more inept government elitist employees. Reprehensible.

  • Ray Southwell says:

    It is well documented runaways are the most vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking. Thomas Garber has spent years attempting to have a grand jury investigation into OCS. In November of 2022 he almost succeeded. Government does not want their dirty laundry exposed. The grand jury process changed in December of 2022. Two branches of government worked in a concerted effort to destroy the peoples power through the grand jury. It has become overwhelming for most of us to speak to a grand jury concerning government corruption. Thomas Garber is the only one standing to expose the truth about OCS TO A GRAND JURY.
    Sent from my iPhone

  • John J. Otness says:


  • Kenneth L. Wells says:

    “OCS broke up a functioning family unit and basically destroyed five children in the process.” ~ E. Henry
    I seem to have missed the part where we learn why OCS took 5 children from “AK mom”. OCS is, of course, forbidden from revealing why.
    This is not to suggest I’m taking sides. There isn’t enough solid information in this article to go on.

    • David Ignell says:

      Kenneth, you’ll find some of the background information you seek in my first article about AK Mom back on 2/18/23. A link to that story is provided in the current article.
      OCS had no legitimate basis to take the children. They claimed AK Mom was medically abusing her children, but she was following doctor prescriptions. The whole thing was bogus.
      Besides the financial prize these kids represented to the system, I think OCS/DOL were also motivated by retaliation. Twice, AK Mom defeated the State in court. The first was during the adoption of the youngest child (who was a sibling of one of the older kids) and the second was on a completely unrelated matter. Sorry, but to protect the identity of AK Mom’s family I can’t provide more details.

      • Kenneth L. Wells says:

        I did go in search of the article you mentioned and found one on topic roughly that time. Again, lots of allegations and, again, OCS can offer no public defense.

        If it helps, you’ve presented a story worthy of investigation by a neutral agency or investigator, that both sides may make their cases or defend themselves.

  • Daddio says:

    A few things to remember:
    The Alaskan government is extremely corrupt.
    OCS is a government institution and therefore, also corrupt.
    I do not think that OCS is the most corrupt government agency.
    It is important to remember, however, that there are still many good people working in these corrupt agencies trying to make the best of a bad situation. There are also, of course, bad actors.
    The question posed was, “will Alaskan lawmakers free grand juries to investigate OCS”.
    The real question should be… should grand juries investigate ALL government agencies as a matter of course and will that make any difference as the ever-increasing level of government corruption and malfeasance?

  • Ed Martin Jr says:

    Kenneth, Sixteen runaways from foster homes to return to their Mother & siblings is not proof enough? Get your head out! Placing one in a homeless shelter both in Juneau & Anchorage only for once again the child wishes tyo get back home to mom….get a clue it’s either the butler or the professor at fault?
    I have witnessed a Probable Cause hearing in Kenai last fall about a Mother who lost both children to OCS because a School Teacher had “suspicion of abuse” of the Single Mother whose child had a IEP at the Grade school to report to a school nurse but somehow didn’t ,that did know the mother & the child but bypassed them both to hand over both children to OCS . The result was 2 1/2 months away from the mother until the correct judgement gave the children back to the mother with a “NO probable cause ruling” just before Christmas. With prayer all day long , many that knew the Mother she got her children back ,Thank you God!!! Yes, this is one of the cases that Thomas Garber was wanting a Grand Jury to review from a previous ruling that keep those sanme children from their Mother!

    • Kenneth L. Wells says:

      Again, I take no sides. I merely observe one side is forbidden from defending itself.
      Given the severity of these accusations, I’m on board with an investigation by a neutral party and let the chips fall where they may.

  • Ricardo says:

    AK Mom would probably get better traction working with the Democrats, obviously these God fearing Republicans don’t give two craps about her plight.

  • Clark says:

    The kids running away 16 times is actually evidence that they WEREN’T being raised properly by their mother. A good parent would teach their kids to follow authority figures and to stay with their care-givers until mommy and daddy could prove they were safe. Because being a lone runaway is about the most dangerous situation your kid could be in. The very first time it happened, AK Mom should be telling her kids to stay put. I remember reading about this a couple years ago that AKMom was suspected of suffering from Munchausen syndrome. That she intentionally adopted mentally ill children so she could easily abuse them to constantly take them for medical care for the attention it garnered her. But her mentally ill children kept getting injured at home and running away from there too, and eventually the psychologists stopped believing her story that ‘they did it to themselves’. Bruises in places that didnt make sense if they were self-inflicted, etc… I heard all she had to do was comply with some psychological evaluations to prove she wasn’t abusing her kids, but she refused. This way she gets TONS of attention from right wing sympathizers that believe every conspiracy about the govt, which is what she craves more than anything, and she doesn’t even have to raise the kids. Why would she want to prove that she is well? It’s telling that so many govt officials have looked at the information and then they shut up and can’t help her. It’s because whatever her side of the story is, the states side is compelling enough that they are standing behind the states version. Of course, they can’t say anything about ongoing cases like this, so we only ever get to hear one side in this echo chamber. Connecting this story to human trafficking seems disingenuous. I noticed you didnt say any of her kids WERE trafficked. Thats a dumb argument that putting kids in foster care increases their risk. OF COURSE breaking up families causes problems. Being poor increases the risk of being trafficked. Having abusive parents increases the risk. Having parents who drink or do drugs, being LGBT, having a lower than average IQ, having a single parent household, having mental illness….Every single one of these issues and many more increase the risk of being targeted by bad actors. They also happen to almost all be more prevalent in poor households. The state doesn’t target families…the state reacts to children showing signs of abuse coming to the hospital…usually multiple times. Then they dig a little deeper and if it looks like the kids are likely being abused they take action. This happens more often in poor families since they have so many more risk factors.

    • Kenneth L. Wells says:

      That was well stated.

      • Clark says:

        The conservative line just doesn’t make sense.

        And I get it. I REALLY get it. My niece was taken from our family when she was 2 months old. Her father broke 8 of her ribs and her femur. Guess what…the state immediately intervened, and rightly so. My niece was in nearly a full body cast and they took her away and put her into foster care. My sister had to prove that she wasn’t a danger by taking some drug screenings, having random visits by a social worker, and undergoing some psychological evaluations. That took a few months. She did it. She got her child back. If she had refused to cooperate and instead tried to accuse them of violating her rights, or conspiring against her or whatever. The same exact thing would have happened to her as in AK Moms case. She would instead be tied up in court for years…have had to pay lawyers tens of thousands of dollars, and all the rest. But the fact remains that HIGHLY trained people observed injuries that appeared to be caused by the parents(or through their repeated negligence). They go through 2-3 layers of people that all have to agree on the issue, and they have to get a judges order. Literally all of these people are loathe to remove a child from their parents. They would only do it in clear(highly likely) cases of abuse. So the question is why wouldn’t AKMom just comply with the required steps? The likely options are either she can’t comply because shes guilty, or she values the attention shes getting(or maybe an unlikely monetary reward) over actually getting her kids back.

  • Kenneth L. Wells says:

    Mr. Clark, that is the conservative line that you have described.
    We regard it as unlikely that the events being described by Mr. Ignell could have happened. Unlikely, but not impossible. There may be some conservatives who place too much trust in the system, fair enough. Most, however, are quite willing to shine the light of day upon everything and let the chips fall where they may.

    • Clark says:

      If you view it as unlikely to have happened, then there is 0 reason to pretend a Grand Jury should be investigating. Unlikely to have happened = reasonable doubt. You need enough evidence to be presented to indicate a lack of reasonable doubt BEFORE a Grand Jury should be called. A parent just claiming she was wronged or even a hundred parents just claiming they were wronged is NOT evidence. You don’t get to accuse people of crimes without evidence and then upend their lives/jobs on a giant fishing expedition. Thats exactly what the runaway Kenai Grand Jury tried to do to Judge Murphy. They accused her of crimes and then had no evidence to back it up. Of course common sense could point out the obvious conflicts the ‘instigators’ of the accusation had. Personal grievances for her convicting him(even though he already confessed).