“In the best interests of the child…”
You will not see this phrase in the language of the first tribal foster care and guardianship program to be eligible for federal payments under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act.
For the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, caring for its children means a broader concern for the whole community.
“There’s a lot of federal language that’s historically been used against Indian children,” said Andrea Smith, the attorney for the tribe’s Children and Family Services. “Historically, ‘in the best interests of the child’ was usually used to pull children out of their homes. We don’t use that language in our code.”
The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe has about 1,226 enrolled members and is located in the northern portion of the Kitsap Peninsula surrounded by the Puget Sound.
It applied for, and is the first tribe to receive, approval from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) to get federal funding for its foster/guardianship/adoption program. Tribes have been eligible for the approval as of October 2009, when Public Law 110-351 went into effect and provided tribes with the option to operate foster care, adoption assistance and kinship guardianship assistance programs, according to the Federal Register.
The Port Gamble S’Klallam have 18 licensed homes, on and off the reservation, for foster or guardianship care. Currently 28 children who are tribal members are in out-of-home care, often within the children’s own extended families.
“One hundred percent of our kids are in our program,” said Jolene Sullivan George, director of the tribe’s Children and Family Services. “So we’re not losing any of our kids, which historically had been an issue. They are maintained within the community.”
Before Public Law 110-351 took effect, Port Gamble S’Klallam children who needed foster care would be placed in homes licensed by the state, usually outside the tribal community, sometimes for most of their childhood. Many adult tribal members related stories of growing up completely separated from their culture and feeling lost when they turned 18 and left foster care.
“We have one elder specifically who has been pretty vocal about her experience in foster care,” said George. “As an adult, she didn’t even know where her family was from. For her to come back home here to the reservation was very exciting for her. She didn’t have the connection to the community any more. Several other adults have had similar experiences.”
The tribe already had a Title IV-E intergovernmental agreement with the state of Washington, so the transition should be smooth, George said. “We actually have a wonderful working relationship with Washington state. We have always been able to work with any issues that came up.”
Some care arrangements through the tribal program place children into the home of other relatives. Those relatives can then get assistance to continue caring for the children, which had not been the case in the past.
“We’re a pretty small community, pretty close-knit,” George said. “We don’t see kids bounce around from home to home because of the level of support we can provide.”
Staying on the reservation keeps children connected to the community and to their families, even if the parents are not capable of being the primary caregivers. “Their parents are never really completely out of the picture,” George said. “By keeping them connected, our kids don’t get that feeling of loss.”
Some off-reservation homes licensed by the Port Gamble S’Klallam’s Children and Family Services might be called upon to take children who are not tribal members, she said. “The state borrows beds from us.”
Not all licensed homes are tribal members. For instances, some families of the nearby Suquamish Tribe are licensed for foster care through the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. “Generally people who apply for the program are closely connected to our community,” George said. Some have family members in both tribes.
The Children and Family Services staff will not increase with the new duties, she said. One staff member was moved from the tribal welfare program to specialize in the Title IV-E program. “We’re anxious to start claiming for her time,” George said. Now that the tribe has the ACF approval, it can get federal funding to help cover the cost of that position as well as money to help the families with the children.
Meanwhile, the tribe continues to build its program that serves the “best interests” of its children and its community. “We have case managers, we have our own tribal codes,” said Smith. “We have our own program that’s very culturally appropriate.”