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Tribes face hurdles, cultural concerns, with federal foster care

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WASHINGTON – When the federal government opened foster care assistance to Native American tribes in 2008, more than 80 expressed interest in the program.

By 2014, however, just 27 tribes had applied and only five had been approved for the federal program, their efforts hobbled by a lack of resources, inflexibility by federal bureaucrats and cultural insensitivity, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The February GAO report said that many tribes, as a result, have struggled to win approval for plans that would let them more easily access the Title IV-E program, which doled out $7 billion in 2014 to states for their foster care programs.

An administrator for the Navajo Nation, one of the five tribes that have managed to win approval for a Title IV-E program, said the six-year process for her tribe was “frustrating” and “painful.”

“From the get-go we had a lot of problems trying to work with the feds,” said Gladys Ambrose, the Title IV-E director for the Navajo Nation. “There was a heck of a lot of headache and fighting we had to do to get our plan approved.”

Besides the bureaucratic hurdles, both the GAO report and experts pointed to cultural conflicts that have hindered development of the program.

Timothy Perry, associate director of the Office of American Indian Projects at Arizona State University, said many tribes still have memories of a time when their children were adopted off reservations by the hundreds and placed in non-Native homes or boarding schools.

“How many of their children who have been living outside of their homelands off the reservation in state custody is a huge concern,” Perry said. “The adoptions have a long history of that. They’re really sensitive to that.”

Ambrose said federal agencies were not willing to compromise with tribal leaders and were sometimes “flat-out disrespectful” on cultural issues.

Tribes continue to face “significant hurdles” to getting foster care programs approved and running, said David Simmons, director of government affairs and advocacy at the National Indian Child Welfare Association, which is trying to help tribes through the process.

“We had hoped for larger numbers of tribes to be approved by now,” Simmons said in an email.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Title IV-E, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the program.

But in a response to the report, HHS agreed with two GAO recommendations – that it consider greater flexibility and work to make response to tribes more uniform across its regional offices. The department disagreed with the GAO that it should establish procedures for timely review of tribes’ draft plans.

Title IV-E was created in 1980, to provide states with funding to reimburse foster parents for the care of foster children and to pay administrative costs for training, recruiting and general operations of foster care programs. It is the single largest source of federal child welfare funding.

But tribes were not eligible to apply for the program until 2008 – even though Native American children enter foster care at twice the rate of all American children, the GAO report said. Before 2008, state governments would run parts of tribes’ foster care programs or the tribes could apply for funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

While BIA grants are more easily accessible, the funds are limited and are needed for other services in tribal communities, Perry said. He said Title IV-E is a “much larger pot” and is more reliably funded because it’s an entitlement program.

Simmons’ email said tribes “had very limited access to any child welfare funding for the placement of children in substitute care. This … pushed many tribes to rely heavily on states to care for their children, which has not proven effective.”

Being allowed to apply to Title IV-E was just the first step, however. Tribes still had to win access.

The GAO report said tribes developing Title IV-E programs often did not have the staff or the resources to meet program requirements, even after receiving development grants up to $300,000. Challenges included a federal requirement that reporting software be built from scratch, for example.

“Title IV-E was instituted for states many, many years ago, and it also started out with appropriations for staff and the development of a reporting system … for computer hardware, for computer software, for data management,” Perry said. “When IV-E was extended to the tribes, none of that was included.”

In Arizona, the Pascua Yaqui tribe received a program development grant in 2013, and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community received one in 2014. Neither has had its plan approved.

And many tribes were hesitant with provisions of Title IV-E itself.

The GAO noted that the program that requires termination of parental rights if a child is in foster care for more than a year. But in many tribal cultures, Perry said, an extended-family relationship is common, and children sometimes live with other relatives.

“It’s been recognized throughout their history that some children will need to move to different parts of the family to be cared for, but that concept never included the separation away from their parents, that legal separation,” he said.

Because tribes historically have not had “a seat at the table,” federal child welfare programs were not designed with their children, families or communities in mind, Simmons said. He called the notion of terminating parental rights “inappropriate” to many tribes.

The Navajo stipulated that terminating parental rights is not to be used as a first option in their program.

Despite the challenges, Simmons and others said there are benefits to the program.

Tribal control of Title IV-E funds helps them “keep their children in their community and under their care,” Simmons said, and can help them redirect funds to services that can “prevent children from being removed from their homes in the first place.”

The program is also a recognition of tribal sovereignty, even if it was sometimes a fight.

“We really had to fight for our sovereignty. They said the federal requirement says this, so you have to do it this way, and we said no,” Ambrose said. “This is going to be the Navajo Nation plan. This applies to our Navajo children and our Navajo families.”

But she said the process forced the tribe to re-examine its program. And while it’s still early – the Navajo plan was not implemented until October – Ambrose said she’s hopeful.

“Now that we have given birth, we’re excited to see how it will grow,” she said.