In recognition of the tireless advocacy of the many child welfare workers, foster parents, volunteers and family members who care for Native children in state custody, tribal nations have been promoting National Foster Care Month to raise awareness about the need for more Native foster homes in the United States.
As legal challenges from foster families—and, most recently, the Goldwater Institute—to the Indian Child Welfare Act have emerged from jurisdictions across the country in recent years stating ICWA is unconstitutional and provides unequal treatment to Native youth, tribes have redoubled their efforts to strengthen and support the 39-year-old federal statute. One of the major areas of focus has been addressing the shortage of certified Native homes for children in state custody, as the majority of tribal children in foster care are in non-Native placements.
“There always are children in the foster care system who need to find permanent homes and connections,” said Larry Behrens, supervisor of the Choctaw Nation Adoption and Foster Care Program. “National Foster Care Month also is a time to focus on ways to assist the more than 900 Choctaw children and youth in foster care across the state of Oklahoma.”
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The Cherokee Nation says it has approximately 1,600 children in state custody, nearly 900 of whom are outside the tribe’s jurisdiction. And though the Nation has seen an increase in the number of Native foster homes in recent years, there is still a shortage.
“Two years ago, we only had 17 regular foster homes, and today we now have 46 who regularly step up to foster Cherokee children in need,” said Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. “However, we need more homes. A decent number of our children are placed with relatives, and a high percentage of those children are in non-Native foster homes.
“Our goal is to have more foster homes waiting on children than children waiting on foster homes.”
The tribe also announced its new Family Leave policy, which allows Cherokee Nation employees to use family leave time when accepting a foster placement. That makes the tribe the first employer in Oklahoma and in Indian country to enact policies specifically designed to address the unique needs of foster parents, who often have to take off work to manage school transfers, doctor’s appointments, daycare and other related issues.
According to the Choctaw Nation Children and Family Services Department, there are many reasons children wind up in foster care, including broken homes, drug and alcohol dependency, imprisoned parents, mental health issues and neglect, to name a few.
As a result, many of their children in state custody are scattered in foster homes across the country, which has created significant jurisdictional and legal issues for both tribes in recent high-profile cases, including that of a Choctaw child known as “Lexi,” who was returned to her relatives in Utah last year after a five-year legal battle between the tribe, the girl’s biological father and her foster parents in California.
The Choctaw Nation’s requirements for foster homes include either the husband or wife to be an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, parents must be 21 years of age, and must submit to a state and national criminal background check. Also, the family must reside in Oklahoma.
“You must have the emotional, physical, and financial ability to provide for a child’s needs,” said Kathryn F. DeCaire, Foster Care Recruiter for the Choctaw Nation, who added that the process takes about three months to complete. “It’s very simple and you receive consideration and care throughout the whole process.”
DeCaire said the tribe also provides assistance and wraparound resources for foster families.
The Cherokee Nation and the Choctaw Nation are two of the largest tribes in the country, with a total membership of over half a million citizens. For both tribes, reunification with the parents is always the primary goal of foster care, but when that becomes impossible, the tribe has a responsibility to step forward and care for the child.
“Our ancestors often did this without hesitation when children lost their family during the Trail of Tears and the rebuilding of our tribal society here in Oklahoma,” said Baker. “One fact is true then and true today: Children are sacred, and their care is a shared responsibility.”