WASHINGTON - Tribal leaders and American Indian/Alaska Native parents and youth from across the nation joined child welfare advocates and federal policy-makers at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian Dec. 11 to recognize AI/AN children and families involved in the U.S. foster care system. Hosted by the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the National Congress of American Indians and the national Kids Are Waiting campaign, the event acknowledged the struggles faced by the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in meeting the needs of children and families in their care, and Congress' role in providing the funds necessary to provide vital programs and services.
According to a report by NICWA and Kids Are Waiting, AI/AN children are overrepresented in the nation's foster care system at more than 1.6 times the expected level. In states including Alaska, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, these children comprise from one-third to a half of the state's total foster care population.
''The current foster care financing system is, in effect, removing American Indian and Native Alaska children from not only their families, but also their culture. By not allowing tribes to directly receive federal child welfare dollars, this system is failing those children who need foster care,'' said Jim O'Hara, managing director of policy initiatives and the Health and Human Services program at The Pew Charitable Trusts, which directs Kids Are Waiting.
Because tribal governments are unable to directly access some of the largest sources of federal child welfare funding, their ability to meet the needs of children and families in crisis is severely limited. As a result, tribes are only able to provide services for 30 to 40 percent of AI/AN children in foster care.
''Providing tribes direct access to federal child welfare resources is one of the most important things the federal government can do to help American Indian and Alaska Native children and families,'' said Terry L. Cross, executive director of NICWA and member of the Seneca Nation. ''This would enable tribes to access resources to keep children safely with their families and help ensure that children leave foster care more quickly through reunification, adoption or guardianship.''
The event also honored Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for his leadership role in recognizing the needs of AI/AN children in foster care. In August, Baucus introduced the bipartisan Tribal Foster Care and Adoption Act of 2007, which would both grant tribes direct access to federal foster care and adoption funds and create accountability measures to ensure that tribes meet the needs of the children in their care.
''Tribes should receive the same direct access to federal funding for foster care and adoption services that states currently receive,'' Baucus said. ''We need to do more to make sure that Native American children receive the best care, and our first step should be providing care that is reflective of Native culture, and provided in Native communities. I'm proud to have introduced a bill that will provide tribes with direct and equal access to these services. It's time to stand up for Native American children in foster care, in my home state of Montana, and across this country.''