Tribes gear up for child welfare provisions

WASHINGTON – With the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act signed into law Oct. 7 by President George W. Bush, tribes now have just under a year to prepare for provisions of the legislation that will affect them.

The law, which made it through Congress in mid-September, allows tribes or tribal consortiums to apply directly to the federal government to operate the government’s largest source of child welfare funding, known officially as Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance.

It’s the first time tribes will have direct access to the program since it was enacted in 1981.

In terms of money, the legislation authorizes and appropriates $3 million total 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 also includes provisions for one-time startup grants of up to $300,000 a year for up to two years for tribes seeking to apply to operate the Title IV-E program.

The assistance and startup funds do not take into account the operating dollars tribes will receive each year. Estimates indicate that at full implementation, tribes will be reimbursed more than $60 million each year to implement the program.

David Simmons, director of government affairs for the National Indian Child Welfare Association, noted that the law contains a revenue offset, so all of the services it encompasses, including those for tribes, are already accounted for by the federal government.

While the nontribal provisions of the legislation take effect immediately in most cases, the tribal provisions do not take effect until Oct. 1, 2009.

“It may seem a long way off right now, but in reality, the time is going to fly by so quickly,” said Christine McPherson, managing director of Casey Family Programs’ Indian Child Welfare Programs. “We have a lot to do.”

First off, she said, tribal leaders should get involved by offering input to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services on the regulations it will need to develop to work with tribes. No announcements have been made yet by the department on how it will conduct its regulation development, but more information should be coming soon.

Simmons said his sense is that the regulation development will be handed off to the next presidential administration, but the Bush administration could still take action in its waning months.

Several child welfare organizations, including NICWA and Casey Family Programs, are in the planning stages of helping federal government officials think about how they will go about providing technical assistance to tribes. A national resource center for technical assistance is mentioned in the law, but how it will meet the needs of tribes under the new provisions remains to be seen.

Part of the new training that must now happen involves getting tribes up to speed on how they will work with the federal government to receive funding.

Simmons said NICWA has already been meeting with several tribes and leaders to help them understand the law.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but now is the time that the rubber hits the road,” he added, noting that NICWA would like to be a key player in providing technical assistance to tribes. The organization is looking to build its capacity to help operate tribally related aspects of the Title IV-E program.

McPherson said tribes that already work with states to administer tribal-state Title IV-E programs will probably be best prepared to take advantage of the autonomy offered via the law. Such tribes have already experienced the advantage of state training and they have seen how the paperwork and funding process with the federal government works.

“They certainly need to look at the advantages that they have with working with the states,” she cautioned, noting that in some cases states pay for matching funds that tribes would have to now account for if they were to take complete control over their Title IV-E programs.

States also have much more of an infrastructure in place to operate the program, so some tribes will likely be at a disadvantage in comparison, even with the startup grant funding provided under the law.

Despite the issues that will likely arise for tribes involving the law in the coming years, Simmons said most tribal leaders he’s spoken with are enthusiastic.

“In terms of the tribes’ ability to exercise their authority to be more fully involved in the lives of their children and families, Title IV-E access is going to be a very, very important resource.

“Most of the tribal leaders understand the implications and importance of this new law.”