SOURCE: Native Health News Alliance


March 09, 2016 08:30 ET

Building Stronger Families in Indian Country

How Tribal TANF Programs Are Working to Strengthen Vulnerable Native American Families

SAN DIEGO, CA--(Marketwired - March 09, 2016) - Joseph Mathews was raised on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Southern California. The son of unemployed parents who both struggled with substance abuse, he learned to navigate life alone as best he could.

By 18, he decided to leave the reservation to join the military. Sixteen years later, he returned with his family, ready to start over.

"It was a tough experience for me, but the fact is that I am Native and I love my community, history and culture," said Mathews, a 36-year-old father of three. "Now I'm able to use my life experiences, hiccups and successes as examples."

He talks of the stories he shares in the weekly parenting classes he leads for the Morongo Tribal TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) Program. As its Family Advocate Supervisor, he assists fathers in becoming leaders of their families and how to better communicate with their spouses and children.

Mathews is a certified facilitator of a 12-session course called Fatherhood is Sacred, a program grounded in Native American teachings created by the Native-led nonprofit organization, Native American Fatherhood and Families Association, based in Arizona.

"It holds up a mirror and asks us to look at ourselves," he said of the course. "I remember this one time when my son told me he thought I was being a total jerk. I was being mean and cranky, but I worked hard and did everything I thought I needed to do to take care of my family."

"The program," he said, "made me realize that, well, I wasn't giving [my family] my time."

Heeding the call

There's been an increasing focus on stabilizing and strengthening families in Indian Country. President Barack Obama's proposed $2.9 billion fiscal year 2017 budget for Indian Affairs ramped up investments to promote family stability by $21 million -- a $17.4 million increase over the previous year. If approved by Congress this fall, the increase would fund a range of agencies including human and social services, public safety and tribal courts.

Over the past two years, federal policy has demonstrated commitment to the issue, most notably with the Tiwahe Initiative, a multi-year federal effort to improve tribal family well-being by addressing high rates of poverty, child abuse, incarceration, violence and substance abuse.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Children, Youth and Families directs an average of $647 million in grants to tribes for child welfare resources, such as Tribal TANF programs, head start, child support and the Administration for Native Americans, among others.

Amber Ebarb (Tlingit), the National Congress of American Indians Budget and Policy analyst, said if approved, the budget increases are substantial.

"It's a good approach to investing in Native families and reflects what the administration is hearing from tribal leaders about what's really important in Indian Country -- addressing child abuse, substance abuse and violent crime," she explained. "We would like to address improving economic development, but at the moment, these priorities are reflecting the real crises in Indian Country."

The crisis of broken Native American families has systemic roots, according to Dr. Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq), executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, where in cases of child welfare, Native families are far less likely to be offered preventative services by the courts.

"Native families are treated differently by state courts and child welfare systems than non-Native families," Kastelic said. "Even today, Native children are four times more likely than white children to be removed from their homes at their first encounter with the courts."

The benefits of family

Research shows that parents and family stability are crucial to child well-being. Dr. Holly Schindler, an early childhood development and family studies researcher at the University of Washington, said children's relationships with parents and other adults has long-term effects on their self-confidence, language skills, and emotional and social development.

Particularly in Native communities, Kastelic said that culture provides a protective factor for children and youth, pointing to research that shows cultural identity and community involvement results in greater academic success and lower alcohol and drug use.

"Knowing who you are and where you come from grounds your identity and helps you feel part of something bigger than yourself," she explained. "You have a sense of belonging."

In contrast, research by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child looked at the effect that limited family interaction has on a child's developing brain. According to the Center, neglect increases a child's risk for emotional, cognitive and behavioral disorders.

Similarly, a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found children in foster care are at an increased risk of psychiatric problems, impaired neurodevelopment, suicide and early death.

More mental health effects can be found in children who are raised in poverty -- where about a quarter of Native American families live below the poverty line. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found children from low-income families lagged in brain development, specifically the brain regions that regulate attention and behavior.

Tapping into resources

Increasing access to family and parenting courses represents one of the many ways tribes hope to strengthen vulnerable families in their communities.

More than 180 tribes and Canada First Nations have worked with the Native American Fatherhood and Families Association to certify facilitators in its programs. Out of 71 existing Tribal TANF programs nationwide, 19 have certified facilitators in NAFFA's curriculum.

Albert Pooley, Navajo/Hopi, a former social worker and NAFFA founder, said while most parenting programs focus on mothers, they have a vested interest in developing Native American fathers.

"Our program differs because we say fathers are not the problem -- they are the solutions to the problem and the challenges that face our people," said Pooley, who wrote the curriculum. "There really is a need to get fathers directly involved in the lives of their families in a positive way."

Schindler agreed that there's growing research to confirm that fathers' responsive parenting makes major contributions to children's health and development. In today's world, the father's role is being redefined to include sensitive, supportive and nurturing parenting.

"More specifically, we now know that warm and responsive interactions between fathers and their children uniquely contribute to children's social-emotional, executive function, cognitive and language skills," Schindler said.

Back to ancestral roots

Over the years, NAFFA's parenting courses have extended beyond the father role. Seven years ago, Katie Whipple, Namlaki, Wailaki and Wintun and member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, first learned of the program after her husband was certified.

Now, she facilitates two related courses -- Motherhood is Sacred and Linking Generations by Strengthening Relationships -- as the Washoe Native TANF Program Coordinator for families in the Bay Area.

"I'm very passionate about this program because it takes us back to what our ancestors taught their children and the way that they taught their children," Whipple said. She continues to use the program's teachings—which focus on spirituality, choice, teaching, wisdom and service—with her family at home.

Working with her team, she remembers one parent who enrolled in the parenting courses on his own; she said he came to them broken and was ready to give up.

"Since then he's completely turned his life around," Whipple said of the father of two. "I always tell him, 'Just keep doing what you're doing. The growth we have seen in you in the last two years is amazing.'"

But achieving stable and strong families in Indian Country will continue to require a complex approach -- an effort that Kastelic said needs persistent focus and support to address its roots.

"The overwhelming majority of incidents of child abuse and neglect in Indian Country are neglect, not abuse," she said. "We definitely need more resources to strengthen families."

This story was produced with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation as part of a Native Health News Alliance series focusing on child and youth welfare in Native America.

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