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Urban Natives rally to keep Seattle OICW office open

SEATTLE – In early June Native outreach groups and foster parents of Native children spoke out against a memo sent by the regional administrator of the Department of Social and Health Services to two local tribes stating they are conducting a 100 percent review of cases at the Office of Indian Child Welfare in Seattle.

The urban Native community worries this is a precursor to the office being closed.

Joel Odimba, Region 4 administrator for the DSHS-Children’s Administration, said in late June they are conducting the review at the request of the new Child Protective Services supervisor, and they have no plans to close the office.

“I never told anybody that we were possibly closing the office. I don’t know who jumped to conclusions, and said that we were planning to do that.”

He said case reviews are standard in the social work industry, and it’s up to the Children’s Administration to review those cases, whenever the welfare of children may be at risk.

“What we were told is that there were cases that weren’t being attended to, and being a CPS unit, that to us is a shifty issue.”

Hiram Calf Looking Sr., Native American family advocate for Southwest Youth & Family Services and a member of Local Indian Child Welfare Advisory Committee, organized the “ICW Shall Not Be Undone” meeting June 8 in response to the news – about 60 people attended.

It was at this meeting that Odimba expressed uncertainty whether the office would close, and when asked by community members if the Children’s Administration was considering it, he didn’t take a definitive stance.

“I would be very uncomfortable to say yes or no, because that would be dishonest. We are not ready to make a decision until we find out what needs to be done, and what needs to be corrected, and we need to have a dialogue beyond this meeting today.”

He said the Muckleshoot Tribe was one of the tribes he contacted to request assistance with the case reviews, but Sharon Hamilton-Curley, a representative from the tribe’s human services department, said no one from the tribe was contacted.

“We don’t want to be used as your token tribe for being involved with this because you have not communicated or communicated with us very well as to what is actually going on.”

Odimba said he would look into the miscommunication.

Those who attended the meeting also questioned the case review process and why the urban Native population wasn’t notified.

Odimba admitted his office should have notified the Native urban community leaders about the case reviews, and plans on having them at the table as the process unfolds. “One of the good things I see coming out of this is working with the local urban Indian community. I think that’s an area that we need to work better on.”

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Calf Looking, Blackfeet, said the 28-year-old office has seen its share of ups and downs, especially over the last several years. He said that for nearly two years, Region 4 has failed to fully support OICW. And it was only three years ago that there was a high turnover rate of CPS employees. Once a new supervisor was brought on board, and a new staff was hired, they have been growing stronger.

He said about 80 percent of social workers are doing a thorough job, and doesn’t want to see the staff suffer consequences for past mismanagement of the OICW. “If they close the office, we would be going back 30 years, before all this was set up.”

He explained that social workers not properly trained in the cultural approach will have a difficult time getting families to open up. Another component of training calls for social workers to learn how to interact with tribes from all over the country. These are skills that can’t be learned overnight, and the ICW office offers new social workers a chance to learn from experienced individuals.

Learning these skills, he said, especially applies to the non-Native caseworker that may mistake family members’ quiet and guarded behavior during home visits as being evasive. “They don’t understand the historical trauma about what happened to our people, and it is still there,” he said.

Odimba and Calf Looking agree that ICW cases need dedicated social workers who want to invest the time needed to handle the unique requirements involved with each case, but they differ on who should be doing it.

Odimba said all social workers in Region 4 are trained to be compliant with the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, but that all the ICW work in the region goes to this office for a small group to handle and to be accountable for the outcome of each case.

He said they have revamped their two-day Children’s Administration academy to include an extra two days of ICW practice and cultural competency training. “Right now all the social workers are not being held accountable for this work.”

Calf Looking said even two weeks of training is not enough, and that people forced to do it would be placing families in further jeopardy. “If your heart is not in that area, you are not going to be able to do the job that you were trained to do.”

Plans to examine the possible restructuring of the OICW office will include ICW employees, members of local tribes and the urban Native community, LICWAC, Court Appointed Special Advocates, foster parents, and other Native support services, Odimba said.

A respected individual in the Native community will facilitate the work group, one who understands ICW practice and history in Washington state.

In early July, sources that work closely with OICW said the state has not invested any resources in the CPS unit at OICW, and they are referring CPS intakes to non-ICW offices. They have also replaced the office’s area administrator.

According to the 2000 Census, Seattle and King County has an urban American Indian/Alaska Native population of nearly 20,000, representing more than 36 tribes. ICWA was designed to place displaced Native children with Native families, and to consult with tribes on how to carry out the best course of action for each child.

Kay Fiddler, Ojibwe, has been a foster parent for 33 years, and currently cares for five Native children with special needs. She said foster parents need a voice at the table when it comes to issues affecting OICW, but are often overlooked by administrators.

“We probably have the best idea on how to fix the foster care system.”