Prior to statehood in 1959, there were few mental health services available in the territory of Alaska for individuals who experienced mental illness or developmental disabilities. At the time, mental illness was considered a crime. People with any sort of mental disability who were unable to care for themselves or who could not be cared for by a family member or guardian were charged and convicted as “an insane person at large.” Those convicted of this crime were sent by the federal government to live in Morningside Hospital, a private institution in Portland, Oregon, sometimes for the remainder of their lives. By 1942, more than 2,000 people from Alaska, including very young children, were residing there. (Note: volunteer researches have created a blog about Morningside Hospital to share information about the hospital, the people who went there, and the remarkable story of the determined individuals who pushed Congress to change the way Alaska territorial citizens received mental health services.)
During Alaska’s transition to a state, Congress passed the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 to bring these individuals home. This act transferred the responsibility for providing mental health services from the federal government to the territory of Alaska and ultimately the state of Alaska, by creating the Alaska Mental Health Trust. To fund The Trust, the state selected one million prime acres of land that would be managed to generate income to help pay for a Comprehensive Integrated Mental Health Program in Alaska.
Though the Alaska Legislature held a fiduciary responsibility to manage the land on behalf of Alaskans with mental disabilities, it did not do so. Instead, by 1982, only about 35 percent of the trust land remained in state ownership. The majority of the land had been transferred to individuals or municipalities, or designated by the Legislature as forests, parks or wildlife areas.
In 1982, Vern Weiss filed a lawsuit on behalf of his son, who required mental health services that were not available in Alaska. Other beneficiary groups joined Weiss v State of Alaska in a class action suit. The case was ruled on in 1984 by the State Supreme Court, which ordered that the original trust be restored. Ten years later, in 1994, a final settlement reconstructed The Trust with 500,000 acres of original Trust land and 500,000 acres of replacement land, plus $200 million in cash. As part of the settlement, The Trust’s cash assets are managed under a contract with the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation, and the land and non-cash assets are managed under a contract with the Trust Land Office within the Department of Natural Resources.
The settlement also established an independent Board of Trustees, which is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. Each year Trustees spend Trust income and recommend expenditures of state funds to pay for a comprehensive mental health program for Trust beneficiaries.