Protecting Indian Country’s Greatest Asset: the Children

Why haven't tribes that tout their mission as sustaining seven future generations set the standard for foster care in the United States?

The 2016 Native American Children's Safety Act amended the 1990 Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act to require tribes to conduct complete background checks on all residents of a foster care facility. It also ensures that all members of the facility meet standards defined by the tribe for fostering tribal members before issuing a foster care license.

So, since the "Dakota people do not have a word for child or kids as they are considered ‘sacred little ones’ – wakanheza," as Cynthia Lindquist (Spirit Lake Dakota Tribe), the president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC) in Fort Totten, North Dakota, says, why haven't tribes that tout their mission as sustaining seven future generations set the standard for foster care in the United States? In the era of increasing cries for tribal sovereignty and self-determination, why did the obvious need have to be federally legislated?

The stark answer is that many tribes no longer have the capacity to develop and implement robust child service programs due to thin, piecemeal federal and state resources and agency obstacles, mostly from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).


To hear more on this conundrum, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) conducted an oversight field hearing at the Spirit Lake Dakota Reservation Cankdeska Cikana Community College Amphitheater on April 21. Entitled Safeguarding to the Seventh Generation: Protection and Justice for Indian Children and the Implementation of the Native American Children’s Safety Act of 2016, members sought answers for themselves.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), SCIA chair, accompanied by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), vice-chair, gaveled the session open to the beat of Spirit Lake tribal drums and time-honored flag songs.

Hoeven started with this: "Native youth are more than two and a half times more likely to experience incidences of child abuse or neglect than the children of any other race or ethnicity. This statistic is alarming....We need to turn the cycle of foster care to delinquency around. It's a concern both on the reservation and off the reservation.

"Safe and secure foster placement on the reservation" constitutes an important step in keeping Native youth in touch with their tribes and traditions and out of the juvenile justice system, Hoeven continued. He hoped that the hearing’s testimony would give the SCIA eyes on how the Native American Children's Safety Act of 2016 (NACSA) is being implemented and how others can gain knowledge from the Spirit Lake's experience.

The most compelling testimony came from Myra Pearson, chairwoman of the

Spirit Lake Tribe, who laid out the problem without mincing words.

"The tribe has struggled to develop a sustainable systematic infrastructure to address child deprivation within the Spirit Lake Tribe jurisdiction,” she testified. “The obstacles and challenges that the tribe has faced stem in part from the Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations that hinder information sharing and tribal justice system responses. Burdensome foster care licensing standards and requirements [also] limit the ability of licensed foster care homes on the Spirit Lake Reservation, and [there is] a lack of necessary resources to build a justice system response to child deprivation that is effective, sustainable and culturally appropriate."

According to Pearson, the tribe is working to retake control of child protective services, and tribal officials are in the process of updating policies, procedures and laws. They have filed their letter of intent with the Department of the Interior and are working on funding mechanisms to complete the process.

BIA has frustrated their efforts by refusing to provide case-related information and to work with tribal justice system personnel. This communication breakdown has "directly impacted the safety of our children," she continued. The BIA has "made it clear" that it will substantially reduce funding to the tribe if they resume control of CPS, while expecting them to provide better services with less funding and fewer personnel. "This hardly appears to be a recipe for success...." Pearson charged.

Other witnesses – all from federal and state government agencies – shared her frustration over funding, but defended their turf in promoting their own solutions.

CCCC president Cynthia Lindquist delved into the complexity of the problem and the solution. Part of the problem is money. As Lindquist noted, "There is no one solution except for the need for significant infusion of resources—financial and professional—to address the safety and protection of Native children.”

But Lindquist raised another issue that echoed Pearson's lament: tribes' reliance on the paternalistic practices of their trustee rather than acting independently. For Lindquist, the complexity is, "related to history and historical trauma, and compounded by endemic poverty....[that] has forced Native people to live a dependency lifestyle that is alien to Dakota life ways of industriousness, ingenuity, compassion, and generosity." Lindquist expanded further, "Native people have been taught dependency and various federal policies have had a detrimental impact that contributes to the dependency lifestyle....[Thus poverty] and hopelessness limit aspirations and it is a debilitating cycle that is compounded by alcohol and drug abuse."

Tribes wanting to solve their own problems, though, often don't have the data to inform their own internal policies and procedures, she noted. Her findings are based on three comprehensive data-rich studies generated by CCCC, which led the coordination of a partnership with the Spirit Lake Tribe in 2015 to document their child welfare deficits through a Comprehensive Community Assessment (CCA).

While the CCA data is applicable only to the tribe's unique conditions, it points to factors that social scientists have long identified in other populations at the heart of social ills: low education, employment, and income levels. While a deeper look at Lindquist's data points to Spirit Lake Dakota Tribe's remarkable youthfulness as the likely cause of disparate educational, employment, and income levels, the data reinforces other findings that show that these three conditions have a negative cascading impact on child welfare. The tribe's median age is 23.4 (compared to state and federal median ages of 37 years), and only 7 percent having earned a bachelor's degree. There is a 55 percent tribal employment rate, and household income averaging just over $26,000 translates to 57 percent of tribal children living in poverty.

Lack of access to services only makes things worse. According to Lindquist, the CCA revealed that, "Respondents noted that access to health care services, particularly mental health/social services/substance abuse treatment, along with better quality of services, are important factors influencing outcomes." Moreover, she stated, "the Dakota suffer from a complex of "disparities in social, health, education, and economic factors...." that underwrite healthy communities.


Lindquist's takeaway? "Health and education go hand in hand. Education is the pathway to address the various issues affecting the protection and safety of children but to pursue education, there must be some semblance of health and well-being."

Nikki Hatch, regional administrator for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Region 8, (serving Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming), says funding complexity derives directly from the number and types of federal and state agencies issuing grants and how the tribes must pull them together to access even a few thousand dollars. She cited the multifarious funding streams that tribes must access to cover all of their child and family service bills. These include BIA funding, federal grants like the Tribal Court Improvement Program (CIP) grants, and special programs like the title IV-E of the Social Security Act that reimburses tribes for allowable expenditures under the title and the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Child Welfare Services Program (Subpart 1 of title IV-B of the Social Security Act). But, at the end of the day, NACSA is a largely unfunded mandate. When you look at the funding programs available and the total number of dollars being applied against the problem, it just can't possibly be enough. And it isn't.

Lindquist said that solutions "must be rooted in educational opportunities that are funded adequately. Those opportunities must be available at the local/tribal level and culturally relevant." Pearson heartily agreed.

In the meantime, the band aid of federal policy and patchwork of federal and state funding and support might be the most immediate solution, and is likely what the SCIA will support.