Child welfare bill includes tribal focus, funds

WASHINGTON – The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, passed by Congress Sept. 22, creates new, sovereignty-based avenues for tribal governments to access the nation’s largest child welfare program, the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program.

If signed into law by President George W. Bush, the legislation will allow tribal governments to directly access Title IV-E federal funds for foster care and adoption assistance for the first time since the program was enacted in 1981.

Tribes have never before had direct access to the program to help care for their own Indian children. Instead, they have had to go through state government frameworks.

“This bill will really open the doors to help tribes have access in new ways,” said Christine McPherson, managing director of Casey Family Programs’ Indian Child Welfare Programs. She noted that many tribes have had to use their own resources to provide the kinds of services they want to support Indian youth.

The legislation authorizes and appropriates $3 million for each fiscal year beginning in 2009 for technical assistance to tribes involving activities needed to support the administration of tribal programs under Title IV-E. It includes provisions, too, for one-time startup grants of up to $300,000 a year for up to two years for tribes seeking to apply to the federal government to operate the Title IV-E program.

The legislation also provides tribal access to new funding for guardianship placements involving relative caregivers and independent living funding.

There are already a number of tribes operating under tribal-state agreements to assist Indian youth under Title IV-E. Such agreements have allowed federal dollars to pass through to tribes to allow them to provide child welfare services to tribal members.

But negotiations of such agreements have not always gone smoothly, and some
leaders have said tribal sovereignty has been subverted by forcing tribes to work with states to get federal dollars.

“The tribes are sovereign nations,” said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of the American Indians, which played a role in helping legislators address tribal provisions of the bill. “Many tribes felt that the federal government should be dealing directly with them.

“This is one more way for tribes to apply for federal funding for technical assistance and to create their own unique programs.”

McPherson, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, noted that the bill will not automatically force tribes to end any ongoing tribal-state agreements.

“Some states have included state general funds in with their agreements. So, tribes in these states don’t have to provide matching funds [to receive services under the law]. It might be in the best interest of these tribes to continue their state relationships.”

The new legislation would require tribes themselves to provide matching funds if they enter into direct agreements with the federal government to perform child welfare services under Title IV-E.

“This is a great bill, but tribes are going to have to seriously look at it to see if they can afford this process,” McPherson said. “I don’t anticipate that every tribe would immediately try to run out and apply for direct funding. Not all tribes have the infrastructures in place.”

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 that marks the most sweeping congressional reform of the U.S. foster care system in more than a decade.

“Implementation of this legislation, if signed into law by the president, will transform child welfare services for thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children,” said Terry Cross, executive director of NICWA, in a statement. “Tribes will be able to pay for foster and kinship care, recruit and train caregivers, and most importantly, ensure the safety, sense of belonging, and well-being of their children.”

Cross, a member of the Seneca Nation, noted that the effort to pass the legislation was largely bi-partisan.

“Leaders in the Senate, such as Sens. [Max] Baucus, [Charles] Grassley, [John] Rockefeller and [Gordon] Smith, and leaders in the House, such as Congressmen [Jim] McDermott, [Jerry] Weller, [Earl] Pomeroy and [David] Camp, were instrumental in keeping tribal children’s issues addressed in the legislation throughout the process.”

Indian child welfare experts who have monitored the bill’s progress said that the current budget crisis would not likely prevent Bush from signing it into law, since the bill won’t really result in increased costs to the government. Rather, it largely shuffles funds that have already been in place.