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Native Currents

Our turn at bat: Proposed federal legislation would create equity in child welfare funding

As executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association and the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, we have seen licensed Indian foster families struggle to provide quality care for poor children with no financial assistance from the federal government. Because of a gap in federal law, which does not provide equal access to federal foster care funds to tribes and the children and families in their care, tribal programs struggle to provide needed supports and services to relatives who want to get their nieces or nephews out of foster care to raise them - with few successes; and tribes, kin and Indian parents can be forced to give up custody of a child just to get them services because the wording in 27-year-old legislation leaves tribal children ineligible for federal resources to which all other poor children are ''entitled.'' A full generation of American Indian children has grown up, thousands of them in the foster care system, since American Indians first began to advocate for equal access to federal child welfare funding.

This month, two important bipartisan bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress that could finally close the gap between American Indians and others in child welfare funding. It is time for tribal leaders to let Congress know it must act positively for the Indian children that it has neglected for so long.

The Tribal Foster Care and Adoption Access Act of 2007 has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, but still needs a sponsor in the House. This bill, if enacted, would mean that Indian children will no longer spend their childhood in the foster care system deprived of critical federal funds by providing tribal governments access to the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program. The Kinship Caregiver Support Act was introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives and addresses gaps in existing foster care laws that fail to provide vital financial supports for children when they leave foster care to live permanently with relative guardians. Most tribal placements are with extended family members and, to the extent Indian children are eligible for Title IV-E supports, they would greatly benefit from this policy change.

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NICWA and NCAI are working to promote foster care reform to improve the lives of foster children and youth of all races and cultures. We are working to highlight the recommendations of the national, nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. This commission recommends allowing states and tribes to spend federal foster-care dollars more innovatively and efficiently on programs, such as the kinship caregiver program described above. The Pew Commission also recommends that American Indian tribes become eligible to operate their own federally funded foster care programs.

Tribal access to federal foster care funding and kinship caregiver support both have broad support among child advocates. We hope that our country's policy-makers examine these other funding options, such as subsidized guardianships, so that states and American Indian tribes can best aid children and families. Both are bi-partisan issues that have sponsors from all sectors of the political spectrum. Both proposals are supported by strong evidence that they will positively impact the lives of our children. We strongly urge members of Congress to support these two vital pieces of legislation. And the time for tribal leaders to let Congress know we need their support is now.

Meaningful, long-lasting reform of our nation's foster care funding system will ensure our foster children can live with the safe, permanent families they deserve.

Terry L. Cross is executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Jacqueline Johnson is executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.