By Gloria O’Neil
As a new member of the National CASA Board of Trustees, I am honored to bring a tribal perspective to one of the greatest issues facing Alaska Native people: the crisis in child protection. Despite efforts by the state court system and child protective services agencies, disproportionality and disparity in child protective custody for Alaska Native children have persisted and intensified over the past thirty years. We must do better. This is the time to think comprehensively, to take our experiences and the lessons we have learned and make systemic change to improve outcomes for Alaska Native children.
The challenges to Alaska Native child welfare are great. According to the 2007 census estimate, the Alaska Native/American Indian population comprises 15% of Alaska’s population. At the same time, more than 60% of all children in out-of-home placement within the state are Native. In comparison, in 1990 Alaska Native children represented 20% of the population at large and 40% of the children in custody. This disproportionality is most prevalent in cities and hubs; however it affects every community in Alaska.
Fundamental differences in legal opinions exist between state and tribal governments about the limits and scope of authority on a broad range of issues, including matters of child welfare. The state of Alaska has consistently resisted efforts by tribes to assert jurisdictional authority over child welfare and custody cases. Consequences of these disputes have made solutions applied in other states difficult to apply in Alaska. Current policy conditions in tribal-state relations hinder compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, contribute to disproportionate placement, and inhibit the expansion of tribal services, including access by tribes to federal resources. These restrictions motivated participating Title IV-B Alaska tribes to seek systems-level change across the state.
Working with Casey Family Programs and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Alaska tribes, tribal organizations, the Alaska Court System and the state Office of Children’s Services are engaged in several contemporaneous improvement projects: the state’s Court Improvement Plan, the Alaska Child Welfare Disproportionality Reduction Project, the Family Care and Family Preservation Courts, and the Alaska Native Family Preservation program. Alaska also participated in the Casey Family Programs Breakthrough Series Collaborative to reduce racism in child welfare services. Efforts are concentrated on key changes that can affect the decision points at the front end of the child welfare system, such as initial safety assessments and placement decisions. Relying more heavily on tribal-state collaboration is a key factor in strategies to reduce out-of-home placements and promote cultural and community connections. Capitalizing upon the resources available through the National CASA Association and expanding the use of CASA volunteers will also play critical roles in ensuring greater diversity in the voice for Alaska Native children.
Strategic relationships have led to increased collaboration among the state child protection services system, children in need of aid (CINA) court system, and tribes in Alaska, but without meaningful impact upon the disproportionate rate of Alaska Native children entering protective placements. We believe that a significant reduction in this rate can only be achieved with full participation of every party in a CINA case, with equal access to information and opportunity for a voice in the decision-making process to reach the best solution for families. In the Anchorage community, 140 CASA volunteers are available to participate in CINA court, but few are Alaska Native. The Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) is committed to promoting the recruitment of CASA volunteers, particularly in the Native community. For Alaska Native children, ensuring that a CASA volunteer is a party to every legal intervention could enhance the cultural voice in court proceedings.
We will build on our history of integration in projects such as the Alaska Native Family Preservation Unit (ANFP), which brings together CITC, the Native village of Eklutna, and the Anchorage Office of Children’s services to provide in-home services to prevent unnecessary foster care placement of Alaska Native children. ANFP is a blending of child protection and child welfare practice through an integrated, specialized and co-located unit. Co-location allows for a timely cross-system sharing of knowledge and diminished loss of institutional knowledge from staff turnover. This model could lay the groundwork for integrated services and contracted tribal case management that will maximize effective engagement of families in crisis.
Now is the time to be bold, to pursue new models, and to leverage resources. CITC is committed to developing statewide models of collaboration among the Office of Children Services, the state court system, and guardians ad litem to address the disproportionality of Alaska Native people in the child welfare system. CITC is dedicated to providing excellent, culturally appropriate programs, and to working cooperatively within state systems to create systems change. As CITC’s tribal chair Clare Swan, says “We are running on the feet of the children.” We cannot afford to do that any longer.
Originally published in the National CASA Association’s “The Judges’ Page”