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CA: Native American foster youth still placed in non-Native homes despite 1978 law

May 29, 2013

In 2012, more than 30,000 children in California entered the foster care system—often taken out of their homes following instances of abuse or neglect and placed in the temporary care of another family.

Vicky Ruano is a Bay Area resident who has fostered four children over the past 8 years, and adopted three of them. “There’s such a tremendous need for kids to be taken care of,” she says. She and her husband now have six children, four girls and two boys between the ages of 1 and 21. “There are so many parents that aren’t able to take care of their own birth children and we wanted more kids,” she says.

But Ruano isn’t just any foster parent. She is one of the few foster parents in the area who meet specific requirements for Native American children in need of homes. Ruano is recognized as a member of the Cherokee Nation through her father, and her husband’s lineage combines California’s Ohlone and Miwok tribes. Together, they represent one of just a handful of families in the East Bay who are recruited to take care of children of Native descent.

Last year, 439 Native American children entered foster care in California, according to the Child Welfare Dynamic Report System (CWDRS), a collaboration between the California Department of Social Services and the University of California at Berkeley. Though the number may seem small, it’s disproportionately high, given that Native Americans make up only 1.7 percent of the state’s population.

The report shows that 12 out of every 1,000 Native American children entered the welfare system in California in 2012—a rate similar to that of African American children, and one much higher than the approximately 3 children per 1,000 rate for white and Latino children.

The high proportion of Native American children in foster care is nothing new. “Early studies from the 1960s suggested that in some areas of the country, well above 20 to 25 percent of Native American children were living in foster care away from their families,” says Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor social welfare at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy. “That’s an extremely high rate of family separation.”

The majority of those displaced children were living with non-Indian families, which tribal representatives say have torn their communities apart and weakened tribal heritage. “Studies suggested that the government should attend to the special needs of this population, not only given their high rates of out-of-home placement,” Duerr Berrick says, “but also given the historical treatment of Native Americans by the federal government in United States history.

In order to address these disparities, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978, which requires states to do everything in their power to keep Native American children with their families, or at the very least with Native American families that the child’s tribe designates.

Duerr Berrick says ICWA was a precursor to the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which established a uniform approach to adoption and foster care procedures for all children, regardless of race. Both laws require states to provide services that will enable children to stay with their parents. But if separation is necessary, extended family members and then non-kinship families are sought out to care for the child.

But with ICWA, “the state has an obligation to transfer the jurisdiction of that child’s case to the tribe to which the child belongs,” Duerr Berrick says. “If the tribe doesn’t have the sufficient staff or infrastructure to manage it, tribes will sometimes delegate the responsibility back to the state.”

State and county agencies are charged with identifying whether a child referred to child protection services is from one of 400 federally recognized tribes and ensuring that the respective tribe is contacted and aware of the child’s entry into the welfare system. The tribe may then opt to place the child with a tribal family or a Native American foster family. But oftentimes, those families can’t be found. The number of Native American children in non-Indian families is still high.

As of January, 2013, in Alameda County, while 38 percent of Native American foster children were placed with families, 30 percent were placed in non-Indian homes, according to the CWDRS. Only 3 percent were placed with Native American families other than their own.

Placing kids with non-Native families can erode their connection to their own culture, advocates say. Learning about Native American history in school is not enough, Ruano says, as some schools’ curriculum can gloss over important facts. “You need to learn that at home as well, like in any culture,” she says. “It’s very important for the kids to know who they are and know their culture.”

But a sense of pride and purpose transcends cultural ties. “We all know, when kids get to high school or junior high, people become very cliquish and everybody kind of hangs out with people of your own culture,” Ruano says, adding that adolescence can be difficult for teens who don’t know their heritage. “If you can’t really identify yourself who you are, you can’t identify with others.”

The argument over whether children should be placed within their own family or tribe versus with a non-Indian family was recently pushed into the national spotlight. On April 16, the U.S. Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments regarding the hotly contested adoption case of a 2-year-old named Veronica born to a Hispanic mother and Cherokee father. The mother put Veronica up for adoption when the father refused to financially support the child, but when he heard Veronica was being adopted, he used the Indian Child Welfare Act to reverse the adoption and regain custody—a decision that was upheld by the South Carolina Supreme Court. The non-Indian adoptive couple wants Veronica back and says that under state law, the father would not be given parental status and therefore should not retain custody of the child.

Eighteen attorney generals, including Kamala Harris of California, filed an amicus brief in support of the father. The justices must now decide whether state laws regarding parental status requirements affect the application of ICWA. An opinion is expected in June.

Given the high rate of Native American children in foster care, foster family agencies like Oakland’s American Indian Child Resource Center (AICRC) specialize in finding Indian families when kinship care or placement in tribal families is not an option.

Mary Trimble Norris, the group’s executive director, says that her agency has identified over 300 American Indian children in the area, with 250 in Oakland public schools and about 150 elsewhere. (The 2011 census reported over 3,000 Native Americans and Alaskan natives were living in Oakland.)

AICRC, a nonprofit since 1974, provides after-school programming and social services for Native American kids and their families and also acts as a foster family agency, specifically tasked with finding homes for Native American foster youth.

AICRC employs one licensed social worker who fields calls from the social service departments in Alameda and Contra Costa County to find homes for kids.

“Some counties do a better job at identifying an ICWA child and Alameda is one of them,” Trimble Norris says. But the agency works with just a handful of foster families—about five or six, including Vicky Ruano.

Trimble Norris says finding foster parents like Ruano isn’t easy because prospective parents must show they have enough space and a safe home. For example, parents can be prohibited if they cannot ensure that each child above the age of 4 will have his or her own sleeping quarters or that swimming pools are surrounded by a fence or gate. “It’s very hard in San Francisco and Oakland and the higher cost cities where people don’t have the kind of space you need to comply with the regulatory space needs of foster children,” she says.

In addition, many Native American families are low-income. “You have people sleeping on couches or in nooks and crannies and many generations of families and extended families staying in a home,” Trimble Norris says. “And even though people might not prefer that, that’s the just the economic reality.”

Foster parents must also undergo an orientation and licensing process, which includes fingerprinting, background checks, first aid and CPR certification and training regarding the rights of foster children. Trimble Norris says many potential foster parents have histories of incarceration, domestic violence or substance abuse, and even if they’ve turned their lives around, those histories won’t pass screenings. “They get their life in order, they move, on, they decide they want to contribute and help the community,” Trimble Norris says. “We make pitches about foster kids all the time and people would like to help out but there’s just barriers.”

The road to foster parenting can span at least nine months, but Ruano says agencies like the AICRC make it easier. “They came to our house and did our classes—we didn’t have to go there,” she says. “The process seemed not so overwhelming where some other agencies, it’s like ‘I have to go these twenty classes and, oh my gosh, it’s just too much!’ This process just seems like a lot to do, but really it’s not that bad.”

Foster parents are given reimbursements; the amount varies depending on the age of the child, with older children receiving more funding. Trimble Norris says monthly reimbursements range between $829 to $988 for foster families who work with agencies like hers.

“I’ve seen good foster parents and I’ve seen bad foster parents, but if you’re doing it right and raising them like your own like you should be, it’s definitely not enough,” Ruano says of the stipend.

In the face of these obstacles, Trimble Norris says children still have a vital need to discover who they are—and the Native American community needs families who can help children on that journey. She says AICRC often receives inquiries from adults who were once foster youth adopted by non-Indian families who want to know more about their Native heritage. A descendant of the Oglala Lakota tribe from South Dakota, Trimble Norris says being a part of a tribe is something special. “It’s so important to give the youth a sense of who they are, and of the strength of the American Indian culture and how it can provide them real support,” she says.

Trimble Norris says the Native families can fill that void if youngsters do need to be removed from their birth families—and they offer something that non-Native families may not be able to.

“I think a lot of people say, ‘I will support this child, I will take them to a powwow,’” Trimble Norris says. “But taking a child to a powwow once a year is not the same as giving that child a sense that they belong to a larger community, whether it’s their tribal community, whether it’s with the Indian community, going to cultural events, and going to ceremonial events.”

Ruano strives to connect her children, biological and adopted, with the larger community, through organizations like the Bay Area’s Friendship House, a multi-tribal nonprofit, which offers cultural classes and educational events in Native American culture. “We take them to lots of cultural events—they attend the Native American education classes through the schools, they started dancing at the Friendship House and we go to all the local powwows so they can try to learn as much about their culture,” Ruano says.

She hopes others will join her, and says that the rewards of foster parenting outweigh the obstacles. “I can’t say enough that people should give it a shot, rather than letting the process overwhelm them,” she says. “There’s a huge need. I always try to talk people into becoming foster parents.”

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