Alaska tribes first in nation to take over children's services
The State of Alaska signed a compact with tribal organizations Thursday morning, giving them authority over certain services currently performed by the state Office of Children's Services.
A tribe will be able to decide what kind of services they believe they can provide on behalf of their community.
“So, some tribes may be starting with assisting with home visits, other tribes may be interested in licensing foster homes, and other tribes may be interested in providing a broader array of service,” explained Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson — who is Alaska Native herself.
The compact is the first of its kind in the country.
"You're about to witness history in the making," Nicole Borromeo, general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives, told the crowd as Gov. Bill Walker prepared to sign the document at AFN's annual convention in Anchorage.
Borromeo says the agreement has been several years in the making, and follows eight months of intense negotiations between tribes and the state of Alaska. She described the document as an umbrella agreement that sets forth a government-to-government relationship between the two entities.
In a statement on the compact Thursday afternoon, Walker said Alaska tribes and tribal organizations already work with the state to provide essential services to children and families on a daily basis.
“My administration is committed to reducing the disproportionate number of Alaska Native children in our foster care system,” Walker said. “This compact builds on [tribal groups’] great experience, and incorporates their values, culture, and traditions into our child services system.”
Walker's statement noted that Alaska Native children make up a disproportionately large portion of the state’s foster population.
“While only 19 percent of Alaska children are Native or American Indian, 55 percent of Alaska children in out-of-home foster care are of Native descent, and 61 percent of Alaska Native children in foster care will ultimately be placed in non-Native homes,” state officials wrote.
“We know that at the end of the day, Alaska Native culture is what keeps Native children safe. And how do we know that? We did that for thousands of years before contact,” Davidson said.
Davidson said she has been haunted by "heartbreaking" social-media posts from far-flung Native children saying, "I'm the only one who looks like me in my community," and asking if anyone knows their birth mothers.
"And my children’s generation? I don’t want them to see that any more," Davidson said. "I want our children to know who they are, to know what village they’re from, and know what tribe they’re from, and to have no question about their cultural connection.”
Through the compact, tribes also hope to lessen the state’s caseload and provide more resources.
“We know our families, they come on our radar faster than they do on the state’s radar, and we can front-load the services and hopefully not remove as many children as the state has to,” said Kimberly Sweet, chief tribal judge for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe in Kenai.
Sweet is a former foster parent, and mother of an adopted child herself. She says the tribe first recognized the need to get more involved in children’s welfare services in 1986.
“We had a tribal member that committed suicide while she was in the care of what was currently at the time the Department of Family and Youth Services,” Sweet said. “That spurred our elders and our council on to establish the court, create the code so that we could take children into custody and start our child protection team.”
Sweet says the tribe now provides a wide-array of services through a federal agreement, including a child protective services unit, case management services, and a family preservation unit.
“We have 229 federally recognized tribes, with their own values, their own culture, and their own way of doing things,” Sweet said.