‘When the bough breaks’: Joining a national movement to improve child welfare

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Editors’ note: The first installment of this series looked at the current, mainstream foster care system and some of the complications of making it work for Indian families. The root causes of disagreement in Indian and non-Indian perspectives on how children should be cared for outside their birth homes were analyzed. The article also covered “kinship care” and some history of federal policies that influenced Indian child welfare practices.

Many child welfare professionals and tribal, state and federal leaders have been pushing for changes in the foster care system. Those advocating for changes in the current system charge that the children are not being served effectively, and accountability must be increased.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are feeling the impacts of the inadequacy of the current child welfare system, too; and tribal governments continue to be ineligible for some basic federal funding, such as Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance, further hampering their ability to help abused and neglected children under their care.

Entering into this debate was a national advocate to improve the lives of foster children in the United States. The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care began its study on May 7, 2003. Its task: develop practical recommendations related to federal financing and court oversight of child welfare to improve outcomes for children in foster care, especially moving children out of foster care and into safe, permanent families.

Intensive analysis and conversations with parents and children followed, and the commission published a report with their recommendations in May 2004. Among the recommendations made was making tribal governments among those eligible to receive direct funding from the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance Program. Title IV-E is the federal government’s largest source of child welfare funding, which reimburses states’ costs for providing foster care and adoption assistance services.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association, a child advocacy nonprofit organization in Portland, Ore., is a partner with the Pew Commission and is helping tribal governments and policy-makers understand how the commission’s recommendations can support American Indian and Alaska Native children in the child welfare system. This partnership has led to tribal organizations recently adopting resolutions in support of the commission’s recommendations.

“The Pew Commission’s recommendations regarding the funding of tribal governments affirm tribes’ legal authority to provide services and the critical role they play in helping American Indian and Alaska Native children achieve permanency,” said Terry Cross, NICWA executive director.

In its full report, the commission clearly stated that tribes should be eligible for federal child welfare funds (equal access) and that tribes’ restricted access limits their ability to protect abused and neglected children under their jurisdiction.

Serving on the commission was Judge William A. Thorne, Pomo/Coast Miwok, with more than 20 years’ experience serving on tribal courts, a former president of the National Indian Justice Center and a former board member for National Court Appointed Special Advocates; currently, he is serving on the Utah Court of Appeals.

Thorne considers his experience on the Pew Commission to be one of the most memorable in his child advocacy career. Much of the reform recommendations for tribes can be attributed to his leadership and participation on the commission.

Recently, he reflected on the importance of increasing tribal capacity to serve children and their families.

“The commission clearly took the position indicating that the tribes should have direct access to IV-E funds, which would certainly enhance their abilities to provide services for children and their families,” Thorne said.

And why is it important for tribal capacity to be increased? Because when tribal capacity is increased, through having better access to federal resources, it ensures Indian children receive the most appropriate and effective services.

“The commission understood that family has to be the first considered option when children cannot remain in their parents’ home. They recognized that the well-being of the child has to be the primary objective. In order to assure that, you have to look for – if you’re going to remove the child from their home – the best match in terms of what the child is used to, including culture, family, location and so forth. All those things, I think, are in recognition that children are better able to have a sense of who they are if they are connected with where they come from,” he said.

Supporting Indian cultural strengths in parenting roles and “kinship care,” it is important that extended family and community take an active role in parenting; this is a concept that challenges the current norm in a number of ways. Thorne identified what can be best termed a conundrum of interest for state governments, whose largest source of federal monies are linked to removal of children and don’t place enough emphasis on strengthening families.

Kinship care is considered by most to be a cultural norm of Indian country. When a family has problems, extended family members step in to help, and often that means assuming the caretaking responsibilities for children. So, given a choice of a child being removed from a home due to abuse and being placed in a licensed foster home with strangers in a new community, it appears most Indians will choose informal kinship care arrangements, even if it means little financial support for the kinship caregivers.

“The Indian Child Welfare Act says that you’re supposed to use the social and cultural standards of the Indian community. I’ve been advocating that for 20-some years; every time I talk to a group of social workers I remind them that they ought to be using the standards of the Indian community. They shouldn’t be worried about ‘Are there enough fire extinguishers? Are there enough bedrooms per square footage?’” said Thorne.

More information, such as a recent article commenting on the report for NICWA’s newsletter, and a link to the complete report is available online at www.nicwa.org under the heading of “Policy and Research” and then “Legislation.”

The report could be considered a first step in creating a national movement to improve foster care in the United States. Indian community leaders and tribal officials, in agreement with the Pew Commission, point to the connection between tribal access to federal sources of revenue and the capacity to create real, positive differences for Indian children’s services, which could lead to the day when kinship caregivers receive the support needed in the best interests of the child.

(Continued in part three)

David Simmons is the director of Government Affairs and Policy at the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Kristy Alberty is NICWA’s executive communications manager.