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American Indian children faring poorly in foster care

WASHINGTON – Of the approximately 500,000 American youth in foster care, Native American kids are faring among the worst, according to youth advocacy and policy experts.

New analysis indicates that American Indian, Hispanic and African-American children all fare more poorly than white children in foster care – with Native youth being about three times more likely to be placed in foster care than all children nationally.

At the same time, Native children also tend to stay in the foster system longer and move more frequently when compared to outcomes of white children.

Previous research has shown that children of color in foster homes and their families are treated differently from – and often not as well as – white children and their families in the system.

The new analysis comes by way of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a children’s advocacy organization, where researchers and advocates are especially concerned about how to improve the foster system for children of color.

Douglas W. Nelson, president of the foundation, is among those who want change. “The basic human need for a family connection that can be counted on for life must be recognized as essential for all children and families, including those who interact with the child welfare system.”

Advocates for youth, like Nelson, are hopeful that new legislative updates will soon assist Native children. Specifically, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, passed by Congress in 2008, holds great hope for bringing improvement, youth policy experts believe.

The legislation, considered to be one of the biggest reforms in the foster care system in more than a decade, provides federal foster care funds directly to tribal governments so more American Indian and Alaska Native children can remain in their communities.

The law requires participating tribes to provide matching funds if they enter into direct agreements with the federal government to perform child welfare services under the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program.

Policy experts have noted that the law does not force tribes to end any ongoing tribal-state agreements in terms of foster care. That is, tribal officials who feel the current structures of their agreements with states are working well for Native kids don’t have to immediately begin operating their own child welfare systems. But they now have a bolstered option of getting to that point.

Officials with the National Indian Child Welfare Association, which took the lead on helping structure the tribal provisions of the bill, called it groundbreaking legislation when it passed last year.

Still, the legislation is not a panacea, child welfare experts said – especially in light of the recent dire findings about Native kids in the foster system.

Along with the release of the new research that focuses on Native youth, the Annie E. Casey Foundation is calling on federal fiscal policy to better promote permanence and well-being for all kids in the child welfare system.

Advocates with the organization say that to make a difference in child welfare outcomes, the federal government must also take a leadership role in reducing the pervasive racial disparities found throughout the system.

Along those lines, foundation officials said the federal government should require states to disaggregate by race all data on key child welfare performance indicators; set aggressive goals for reducing and ultimately eliminating racial disparities; and regularly publish data measuring the amount of progress being made against these goals.

Tribal officials have also long called for the federal government to work more closely with tribes on foster care matters that directly affect Native youth.

Further, some policy experts say the federal government should balance between funds dedicated solely to out-of-home care (Title IV-E, more than $6 billion of federal spending in 2006) and funds that can be used more flexibly to keep families intact and promote innovative practices (Title IV-B, less than $650 million of federal spending in 2006).

Various proposals to do so have been presented to the Obama administration, according to child welfare experts.