SOURCE: Native Health News Alliance

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March 08, 2016 14:06 ET

Fostering the Process: More Work Ahead as Tribes Pick Up the Pace in Applying for Federal Funding of Child-Welfare Programs

Chickasaw Nation Gains Approval; Provides Tribal Template in Developing Pre-Funding Initiatives

DALLAS, TX--(Marketwired - March 08, 2016) - Setting up a process for Native American tribes to secure direct federal funding for foster care programs has been, to say the least, deliberate.

In the eight years since Foster Care and Adoption Assistance Program funding became available to tribes, more than 80 of them -- hopeful that this would be a step toward managing foster care systems independent of state participation -- expressed interest in applying.

With federal approval, tribes could directly reimburse foster parents for the care of children and pay administrative costs for foster care programs.

However, by 2015, only 32 tribes had applied for grants to develop an approval plan, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To date, seven have been approved to administer Title IV-E funds.

Those figures beg the question: If Native children are overrepresented in the nation's foster care system at more than 1.6 times the rate of the non-Native population, why has it taken so long for tribes to tap into billions in federal assistance?

Answers vary, but most are tied to cultural concerns about placing children with adoptive families who are non-Native, tribes' lack of resources for program development and the inflexibility of federal officials, according to a 2014 government accountability report.

Before 2008, tribes were not eligible to apply for Title IV-E, which provides funding for the Foster Care and Adoption Assistance Program. Tribes could turn to other funding sources, such as Bureau of Indian Affairs grants, but Title IV offers funding in the billions, including $5 billion in 2015.

"We'd like to see more tribes be approved now, but we understand some of the reasons why they haven't [been approved]," said David Simmons, the Portland, Ore.-based National Indian Child Welfare Association's director of government affairs and advocacy.

Simmons said tribes have been cautious and the preparation time to develop infrastructure to operate the program was "underestimated initially in the legislation."

Statistics reveal that Oklahoma tribes, and tribes in general, still have a significant task ahead of them on the foster care front.

According to the most recent figures cited in a 2007 Pew Charitable Trusts report, Oklahoma had the largest number of Native American children in foster care with 1,250.

In 2013, an HHS report stated that, among all races and ethnic groups, Native American children had the highest rates of representation in foster care.

Chickasaw Nation gains federal approval

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation gained federal approval in May 2015 and began issuing payments to eligible foster families the following July, said Angela Connor, the tribe's executive officer for family support services.

The Chickasaw Nation is the only Oklahoma-based tribe to be approved for direct IV-E distribution. The Sac & Fox Nation and the Cherokee Nation have received development grants of up to $300,000 but have not yet been approved to operate IV-E directly, according to HHS.

"It was a rigorous process, in that we had to review our tribal codes and they had to meet certain criteria," Connor said.

By successfully navigating the approval process, the Chickasaw Nation was able to provide a template for tribes with similar government programs.

As a result, other Oklahoma tribes, such as Cherokee Nation and the Sac & Fox Nation, are traveling to Ada, Okla., to learn how the Chickasaws operate in practice, rather than theory.

"We think there's a lot of things we can assist the tribes with knowledge-wise, especially how to apply and submit a plan," Connor said. "We were so determined because we knew could do it. It was just going to take time and effort, and we know others will follow."

The Cherokee Nation is four months into HHS's two-year Administration for Children and Families grant for the development of a Title IV-E plan, said Rachel Fore, the tribe's administrative operations manager.

Fore said the Chickasaw Nation's experience with Title IV-E can only help in her tribe's federal funding pursuit.

"Not only are there tribes that speak for the process, the more you do something, the better you are at it," Fore said.

Despite similarities in mission, strategizing for Title IV approval is not a one-size-fits-all process, Fore said.

"We have large resources in our tribal government, so it all looks very different for us, as opposed to any other tribe that's gone through it before we have," Fore said.

Fore said the Cherokee Nation has been in Title IV-E summits with the Navajo Nation, the only other tribe with a larger enrollment than the Cherokees. Fore said the Cherokees have seen the Navajos' "road map of the process."

The Navajo Nation, which works with three state agencies in the operation of its foster care programs, was approved for Title IV-E funding in 2014, but the process took six years.

The Navajo "had some really great points of interest -- and also some a-ha moments about training your staff as you go through the process of developing your plan, as opposed to waiting until after the implementation and then trying to train everyone," Fore said. "We have taken all that to heart."

Tribes can learn from one another

Of the seven tribes that have been approved, two are located in Washington state with the others based in Montana, Michigan and North Carolina.

Because the tribal-state relationship varies from state-to-state, each application differs in governing structure, geography and service-delivery issues, Simmons said.

The creation of a Chickasaw template for others to follow could open the doors for increased participation but it won't work for every tribal nation, he said.

"But I do know, that as we started to see the first few tribes become approved, they were sharing their templates, their information and the challenges they had and how they met those challenges with other tribes who were in that developmental stage," Simmons said. "So, I think it's great that the Chickasaws are looking to do that, and I'm sure they've probably done some things that can be very helpful and instructive for other tribes as they go forward."

Connor, who served on the nonprofit National Indian Child Welfare Association Board of Directors, said the federal program's administrators have had to learn a lot about tribes and their initial issues, but they've been resolved.

"We think it will be a much easier and expedient process for the tribes to follow," she said.

Report: Direct funding expedites services

A year before tribes became eligible to apply for Title IV-E funds, the Pew Charitable Trusts and NICWA determined that tribal governments with direct access to the funding could better "support community-based practices that can improve outcomes for [Native American] children."

In addition, the report highlighted that tribes with legal authority and jurisdiction are in the "best position to understand and effectively respond to the needs of their American Indian and Alaska Native children and families."

Once approved, tribes can expect expediency and flexibility in the delivery of services, Connor said. Previously, the Department of Human Services' involvement could slow the process, she said.

As an example of that expediency, Connor said foster families served by the Chickasaw Nation prefer working directly with the tribe. The previous process was frustrating to the families who were served by two agencies, she said.

"Before, if we were to approve a foster home, then the tribe would have to submit [its recommendation] to the Department of Human Services. Then, they would look at the home and go through the process. And then, [the clients] would be issued a number," she said.

"That could all be quite lengthy. Now, they work directly with us. We do a home study. We approve them. And we're ready to place. We anticipate our caseloads to grow as far as the number of kids that are 4E-eligible."

Since the change, Connor said the tribe's foster home caseload has gone from 20 to 60 served.

A matter of getting funding approval

Tribal officials agree that more foster families can be served as additional tribal agencies take direct control of Title IV-E funding.

Simmons, who has nearly two decades of experience in program and policy development, said the slow approval process has parallels to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and tribes' development of TANF programs.

"It was a slow start with just a few tribes moving into the program the first few years," he said. "And then it picked up speed after that."

Simmons is hopeful.

He said Congress realizes that funding imbalances exist in programs that focus on preventing child abuse and keeping families together. He cited legislation created by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who introduced the Family Stability and Kinship Care Act of 2015.

And Simmons said, the HHS is working to make Title IV-E "more tribal-friendly in terms of some of their interpretations of the regulations and the law, and those have been very helpful to meeting some of the unique cultural needs of tribes… more can be done, though."

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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