Wraparound Blog

News from Alaska shows the need to recommit to Wraparound principles

February 08, 2021 | Janet Walker

A series of recent articles in the Alaska News provides a sobering update to the story of a program that was one of the first to show success from the use of a Wraparound-type approach. In 1985, stakeholders from Alaska’s social services, mental health, and education departments formed the Alaska Youth Initiative. The AYI—managed by Wraparound pioneer John VanDenBerg–was successful in returning to Alaska almost all youth with high levels of mental health needs who had been placed in out-of-state institutions. At that time, Wraparound had yet to be defined or formalized, but the AYI work was firmly rooted in the key principles of individualization, unconditional care, and increasing family voice and choice. The documented success of the Alaska Youth Initiative was a key factor in the subsequent evolution and popularization of Wraparound.

The history of Wraparound since the AYI provides many examples of growth and success. A range of initiatives have demonstrated the positive outcomes that occur when Wraparound is done well, and collectively we have created an abundance of tools and resources to support that work. And yet, 35 years after the AYI, the Alaska News articles show that maintaining progress is not guaranteed. The most recent article reports that Alaska’s justice department has opened an investigation into whether the state unnecessarily institutionalizes children with behavioral health conditions, focusing on the high number of Alaska children who are sent to (mostly) for-profit, locked psychiatric treatment facilities in distant states. One earlier article detailed the wide fluctuations in the number of children being sent out of state since 2000, while another article featured the stories of young people who had been sent out of state, and their experiences being separated from their home communities. Thanks in part to lobbying by these young people, the state is feeling pressure recommit to community-based care. With the recent developments, improvements may be coming in Alaska, but the state’s experience is a cautionary tale about the ongoing work that may be needed to maintain the successes that Wraparound initiatives have produced.