U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) bill to improve the lives of Native American children was considered on Wednesday in the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs. This brought the bill one step closer to final passage in the U.S. House of Representatives, and thus one step closer to being signed by the president.
During her testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, Heitkamp spoke alongside officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Administration for Children and Families, and National Congress of American Indians about the immediate need to address the disproportionate challenges Native children face, including experiencing levels of post-traumatic stress similar to newly returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, dramatically increased risks of suicide, and lower high school graduation rates than any racial or ethnic demographic in the country.
You can also click here to watch Heitkamp’s comments on Wednesday’s hearing.
Heitkamp and Murkowski’s bill, which unanimously passed in the U.S. Senate, would create a Commission on Native Children to identify the complex challenges faced by Native children in North Dakota and across the United States by conducting an intensive study on these issues – including high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and dire economic opportunities – and making recommendations on how to make sure Native children get the protections, as well as economic and educational tools they need to thrive.
“For too many Native young people, particularly those in rural areas, the pervasive feeling that they exist in a blind spot of our federal government – living in internet and cell service dead zones, in dilapidated homes, and lacking adequate learning opportunities – is not unfounded,” said Heitkamp.
“If we’re serious about helping Native youth overcome the odds – as they experience the impact of post-traumatic stress at rates similar to newly returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, face tragically high suicide rates, and are far less likely to graduate from high school than any other group – we must change the current trajectory of the federal programs meant to assist them. By considering my bill, which already passed in the U.S. Senate, to help address these challenges, the U.S. House is taking an important step toward healing these deep-rooted wounds and I hope it soon passes the bill so we can get it signed into law.”
“This critical bill aims to remedy issues Native children face such as high rates of poverty and unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and limited economic opportunities. The commission will make recommendations on how to ensure that Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities needed to thrive.” said Murkowski.
As a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Heitkamp first introduced the bill in 2013 to create the Commission on Native Children. It was her first bill in the U.S. Senate, and it quickly gained bipartisan support. In June 2015, Heitkamp’s bill unanimously passed in the U.S. Senate and was introduced to the House by both Republican and Democratic representatives.
Since her time as North Dakota’s Attorney General, Heitkamp has been committed to working with both sides of the aisle to develop policies that advance Native American priorities and improve the lives of Native youth for generations to come.
The Commission on Native Children would conduct a comprehensive study on the programs, grants, and supports available for Native children, both at government agencies and on the ground in Native communities, with the goal of developing a sustainable system that delivers wrap-around services to Native children. Then, the 11-member Commission would issue a report to address a series of challenges currently facing Native children. A Native Children Subcommittee would also provide advice to the Commission. The Commission’s report would address how to achieve:
Better Use of Existing Resources – The Commission will identify ways to streamline current federal, state, and local programs to be more effective and give tribes greater flexibility to devise programs for their communities in the spirit of self-determination and allow government agencies to redirect resources to the areas of most need.
Increased Coordination – The Commission will seek to improve coordination of existing programs benefiting Native children. The federal government houses programs across numerous different agencies, yet these programs too often do not work together.
Measurable Outcomes – The Commission will recommend measures to determine the wellbeing of Native children, and use these measurements to propose short-term, mid-term, and long-term national policy goals.
Stronger Data – The Commission will seek to develop better data collection methods. Too often Native children are left out of the conversation because existing data collection, reporting, and analysis practices exclude them.
Stronger Private Sector Partnerships – The Commission will seek to identify obstacles to public-private partnerships in Native communities.
Implementation of Best Practices – The Commission will identify and highlight successful models that can be adopted in Native communities.