Tiano Stately, 11, of the Ojibwe tribe plays at the Minneapolis American Indian Center

[imgcontainer] [img:pember-ICWA-boy520.jpg] [source]Mary Annette Pember[/source] Tiano Stately, 11, of the Ojibwe tribe plays at the Minneapolis American Indian Center [/imgcontainer]

Indian country should soon be seeing more tribally certified foster homes and adoptions.  The need for such homes is great. In some states, there are two to three times as many American Indian and Alaskan Native children in foster care as other ethnic populations.  Because many potential Indian foster or adoptive families may not meet stringent state foster or adoption program requirements, too often Indian children end up going to non-Indian families. 

This may soon change.  The clumsily named Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, quietly signed into law late last year, may give real strength and authority to tribal child welfare departments. 

The act allows eligible tribal programs to apply for direct funding from the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance Act, the largest federal funding stream for entitled foster care and adoption assistance services for income eligible children.  In 2006, states received $7 billion from Title IV. The U.S.. Congress, first passing these regulations on foster care in 1980, did not initially include access to Title IV-E funding for tribal governments.

Until now, tribes have received more limited federal money for child welfare services through the Indian Child Welfare Act and contract services with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  A few tribes have successfully negotiated agreements with individual states for some access to federally allocated money.  Funding tribal child welfare services can best be described as a patch-work; officials must piece together budgets from several sources of funding, most of it discretionary and therefore unreliable.

According to a report by the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) and the Pew Trusts, tribes have had few choices in providing services to children and families and operate in a constant state of crisis management.  Typically, a tribe with a population of 2,000 members or fewer (over half the tribes in the U. S.) will have access to less than $75k per year in federal child welfare funding.

The record of Indian children and social welfare services in the United States is a long and painful one — a history that many say is still exacting an ugly toll on the hearts and minds of generations of Indian people.

[imgcontainer] [img:comparison-of-adoptions520.jpg] [source]Administration for Children and Families[/source] A federal study of child welfare in the U.S. 1999-2000 compared outcomes for children in foster care. The report found “considerable” differences in “Nebraska, Washington, North Dakota, and New Mexico, with White children far more likely to exit to permanent homes than Native American children.” [/imgcontainer]

Advocacy groups such as NICWA estimate that between 1941 and 1978, 35% of native children in the United States were adopted, often forcibly, into white families.  Indian children who entered the social services system were subject to wholesale removal from their homeland and families.
Adoption programs sponsored by church groups were facilitated by local, state and federal government agencies in these efforts. Indian children, often born to large poor families, were thought to be better off in homes with money and middle class stability. 

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was intended to reverse this injustice by ensuring that tribes would have first jurisdiction over all native children who enter the social services system in the U. S. Despite this law, however, many native children continue to fall through the cracks.  Some state and county agencies may be ignorant of the law or deliberately fail to notify tribes.   In many states, there a few repercussions.  The unfortunate reality is that most tribes lack sufficient funding or infrastructure to run effective child welfare and social service programming. By default, much of the foster and adoption care for their children falls to state agencies.

[imgcontainer right] [img:pembericwagirl320.jpg] [source]Mary Annette Pember[/source] Four-year-old Chloe LaRocque, of the Dakota tribe, dances with her toy moose at the Gathering for Our Children and Returning Adoptees powwow, Minneapolis American Indian Center [/imgcontainer]

According to Terry Cross, executive director of NICWA, “Implementation of [the new Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act] will transform child welfare services for thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native children. Tribes will be able to pay for foster and kinship care, recruit and train caregivers, and most importantly, insure the safety, sense of belonging, and well-being of their children.”

Indian families include a far greater expanse of people than do middle-class white families. We typically grow up calling all adults in our vicinity “aunty and uncle.” It’s not uncommon for children to live with extended family for long periods of time.

I can hear many Indian families heaving a sigh of relief over this new law: finally a little help to feed and clothe all those cousins living on most of the available couches throughout Indian country.

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