MOA a new pathway to keep children with their families

Misty Napeahi, Tulalip Tribes General Manager and Mel Sheldon, Tulalip Tribes Chairman, signing the government-to-government child welfare agreement between the Tulalip Tribes and the State of Washington.Photo/Micheal Rios
Misty Napeahi, Tulalip Tribes General Manager and Mel Sheldon, Tulalip Tribes Chairman, signing the government-to-government child welfare agreement between the Tulalip Tribes and the State of Washington.
Photo/Micheal Rios


by Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 

Few events are more traumatic for children than being removed from their families and entered into the foster care system. The trauma is even worse for Native children because usually when a government agency removes a child, they take them from not only their family but their culture and reservation as well. Such displacement can often lead children down a path to a deeply troubled life.

Here in Tulalip, like countless reservations across the United States, we’ve been forced to bear witness to tribal parents losing their tribal children to the State, of families being torn apart because of a government agency who knows very little about the Native way of life.

There are a lot of Native citizens who don’t understand how this continues to happen, since Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 in an effort to stop Native families from having their children removed by the State and local officials for invalid and misconstrued reasons. Yet 38 years later, Native children are still much more likely to be removed from their families and placed in foster care than non-Native children.

The Tulalip Tribes leadership, along with the Office of the Reservation Attorney, and beda?chelh, have long fought for a solution that accurately reflects Tulalip values while being anchored by our inherent sovereignty. Back in 2011, the Tribe entered their first formal child welfare agreement with the State, but that was a general boiler plate model that laid the groundwork for a specifically Tulalip tailored agreement to follow. After years of steadfast dedication and due diligence, the solution may have finally arrived in the form of an updated government-to-government child welfare agreement between the Tulalip Tribes and the State of Washington. The agreement is reflective of Tulalip’s cultural values, aims to keep families together, and, as much as possible, minimize disruption to tribal children. The official agreement was signed into effect on January 13, 2016 by Chairman Mel Sheldon, General Manager Misty Napeahi, and officials from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and the Children’s Administration.

The signed agreement formalizes the government-to-government relationship between the Tribe and the State with child welfare cases. It’s based on the fundamental principles of the government-to-government relationship acknowledged in the 1989 Centennial Accord and recognizes the sovereignty of the Tribes and the State of Washington and each respective sovereign’s interests. What does this mean? It means the State of Washington now officially recognizes Tulalip has jurisdiction over Tulalip children wherever found and that Tulalip desires to assert its jurisdiction and authority to protect Tulalip children and keep families together whenever possible.

“I would like to thank everybody for coming out today and pay a special tribute to Michelle Demmert, our reservation attorney, for all the hard work she has done and for understanding my vision to protect our children and families,” said Misty Napeahi, General Manager of the Tulalip Tribes, during the document signing. “With this agreement we are doing what’s in the best interest of Tulalip children. That’s who we are here for. This is a road map that will help guide us and allows us to work in the best interest of our children.”

The overarching purpose of this agreement is the safety and well-being of Tulalip Tribal children. To this end, the specific purpose of this agreement between the tribe and the state is to clarify the handling of Child Protective Services and Child Welfare Services cases involving Tulalip children and their families.

Pursuant to the Indian Child Welfare Act and our sovereignty, the Tulalip Tribes have jurisdiction to handle all child abuse and neglect cases for our children. Some may be wondering, haven’t we always had that jurisdiction? The simple answer is no. In certain situations state agencies were able to, and would, circumvent the tribe altogether in cases involving allegations of child neglect or abuse. Now, with this agreement in place, the tribe can no longer be circumvented. Going forward, any time a state agency comes to investigate an allegation of child neglect or abuse, a beda?chelh case manager will be on the scene.

For instance, if there’s a child abuse referral made by a teacher who sees something that isn’t good for a child. Say at school a child is coming in late all the time and one day comes in and has bruising on his face or arms. That teacher or school would call the CPS hotline and provide those details. That would trigger a series of events. If the child was Tulalip, then the State would notify beda?chelh and they would tag the case an emergency or not (24 hour vs. 72 hour contact by beda?chelh and State representatives). If it’s an emergency, then this new agreement lays out the State is required to contact beda?chelh and a beda?chelh case manager would need to be involved in the process from the get go.

This agreement ensures Tulalip staff and representatives are always actively involved in any and all cases involving our children, and that we are taking the lead when the opportunity is there. The bottom line is we want our primary goal to be child safety, and to make sure any services or treatment families are receiving is defined by the tribe. That’s why this agreement also lends itself to the creation of a Tulalip Family Intervention Team (FIT), which will contact families of low-risk assessment and provide skill based services to parent their children, so that no court intervention is necessary.

FIT aims to keep families together and act as a proactive solution offering culture based services to families, while getting parents actively involved. It’s a way to handle things more traditionally between the Tribe and the families.

It may be an agreement of this nature is long overdue, but it took many days and long hours from individuals across several different tribal and state agencies to carefully craft and fine tune in order to get it right, not just for Tulalip children and families, but for all Native children and families. With Tulalip leading the way, there are sure to be multiple tribes who model their own government-to-government child welfare agreements after this one.

“I would like to thank the Tulalip leadership that allows us to do our job and work in the best interest of this community and the children,” said reservation attorney Michelle Demmert. “So many voices do not have someone who is championing their cause. Being an attorney for 24 years people think I should be doing something else rather than focusing on issues involving children or domestic violence, but these are the issues where people do not have a voice in the community. They need someone who can speak for them and understand their situation. Being a Tlingit woman, I have that perspective and can bring out their voice. This agreement does that and so much more. It benefits not only the Tulalip families and community, but other tribes who will follow suit.”


Representatives from the Tulalip Tribes, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and the Children’s Administration signed the official agreement on January 13, 2016.Photo/Micheal Rios
Representatives from the Tulalip Tribes, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and the Children’s Administration signed the official agreement on January 13, 2016.
Photo/Micheal Rios



Contact Micheal Rios,

National Native organizations come together to release new Native Children’s Policy Agenda: Putting First Kids 1st

Washington, DC – Native children form the backbone of future tribal success and someday will lead the charge to create thriving, vibrant communities which is why four national Native organizations – the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the National Indian Education Association, and the National Indian Health Board – have come together to update the joint policy agenda for Native youth. The goal of this policy agenda is to set forth specific recommendations to improve the social, emotional, mental, physical, and economic health of children and youth, allowing them to achieve their learning and developmental potential. In short, this initiative calls on key stakeholders to put First Kids 1st.

This agenda is intended as a tool to assist tribal leaders and other policymakers in their work to create and implement a vision for a vibrant, healthy community. It is also intended to guide stakeholders as they prioritize legislation and policy issues that may affect Native children and youth. The partners have identified four overarching themes as guiding principles for improving children’s lives and outcomes. Within each theme, the agenda sets forth tribal strategies and policy objectives to implement these principles.

Native Children’s Policy Agenda: Putting First Kids 1st is the updated work of the 2008 National Children’s Agenda, created by the same four organizations, and generously supported by W.K. Kellogg Foundation. This joint work for Native youth is part of the “First Kids 1st” initiative, which was announced last year and focuses on changing federal, state, and tribal policy to create conditions in which American Indian and Alaska Native children can thrive.



About The National Congress of American Indians Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights. For more information visit

About The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) NICWA works to support the safety, health, and spiritual strength of Native children along the broad continuum of their lives. The organization promotes building tribal capacity to prevent child abuse and neglect through positive systems change at the state, federal, and tribal level. For more information visit

About The National Indian Education Association (NIEA) NIEA is the Nation’s most inclusive advocacy organization working to advance comprehensive education opportunities for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Formed by Native educators in 1969 to encourage a national discourse on education, NIEA adheres to the organization’s founding principles- to bring educators together to explore ways to improve schools and the educational systems serving Native children; to promote the maintenance and continued development of language and cultural programs; and to develop and implement strategies for influencing local, state, and federal policy and decision makers. Through advocacy, capacity building, and education, NIEA helps Native students, and their communities, succeed. For more information visit

About The National Indian Health Board The National Indian Health Board advocates on behalf of all Tribal Governments and American Indians/Alaska Natives in their efforts to provide quality health care. Visit for more information.

Goldwater Institute challenges Indian Child Welfare Act

Suzette Brewer, Indian Country Today Media Network

PHOENIX, Ariz. – On July 7, the Phoenix, Arizona-based Goldwater Institute announced the filing of A.D. v. Washburn in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, a class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) based on its contention that the federal legislation “discriminates against Native children.”

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, and Gregory McKay, director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) were named as defendants in the case.

The suit is being filed on behalf of “all off-reservation Arizona-resident children with Indian ancestry in child custody proceedings and the foster, pre-adoptive or prospective adoptive parents of these children,” according to the organization’s press release. “This case will not impact current or future cases that involve children or parents living on a reservation where a tribal court has jurisdiction; it will change the law so that state courts and agencies cannot discriminate against Native American children.”

Washburn marks the third major legal challenge to the 38-year-old federal law since the Bureau of Indian Affairs published new ICWA guidelines in the Federal Registry in February of this year, followed by the agency’s declared intention to seek a federal rule, which would make the statute more enforceable on state courts and social service agencies.

“While we have not yet reviewed the filing, we understand that a lawsuit challenging ICWA was filed yesterday. In matters in litigation, we will speak primarily through our briefs in court, but I want to assure the public that we will defend the Indian Child Welfare Act,” said BIA assistant secretary Washburn in a written statement. “Nearly 40 years ago, Congress determined that Indian children were being treated unfairly in the context of foster care and adoption. Congress determined that ‘an alarmingly high percentage of [Indian] children’ were subjected to ‘unwarranted’ removal from their homes and that a federal law was needed to protect Indian children. This law has been an important feature of the legal landscape for many years now and we firmly believe that the protection of the best interests of Indian children continues to be important today.”

According to the suit, the plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against “certain provisions of ICWA and the accompanying BIA guidelines” on behalf of “A.D.,” a 10-month-old baby girl who is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community. Another child plaintiff is a 4-year-old boy who is a member or eligible for membership in the Navajo Nation. The birth parents of both children have had their parental rights terminated by the state and both children reside off-reservation in Arizona. The Navajo Nation, as outlined in the brief, has repeatedly attempted to find ICWA-compliant homes for the boy – all of which were rejected by the state as “inappropriate” placements. If not for the Indian Child Welfare Act, according to the brief, the boy would already be in a permanent home under “race-neutral” Arizona law.

“When an abused child is removed from his home and placed in foster care or made available for adoption, judges are required to make a decision about where he will live based on his best interest. Except for Native American children. Courts are bound by federal law to disregard a Native American child’s best interest and place him in a home with other Native Americans, even if it is not in his best interest,” said Darcy Olsen, president of the Goldwater Institute in the organization’s press release. “We want federal and state laws to be changed to give abused, neglected or abandoned Native American children the same protections that are given to all other American children – the right to be placed in a safe home based on their best interests, not based on their race.”

But the original author of the Indian Child Welfare Act, retired South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk, took the Goldwater Institute to task for its attempt to overturn one of his signature legislative achievements during his time in the United States Senate. Ironically, Abourezk’s late friend and colleague Sen. Barry Goldwater actually voted in favor of ICWA when it was approved by the Senate in 1977.

“I knew Barry Goldwater – he was my friend and often came to me for advice on most tribal matters,” said Abourezk from his home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “I wish he were alive to see this travesty because he would never approve of it and you can quote me on that and make sure you emphasize the word ‘never.'”

Tribal leaders, their legal teams and ICWA advocates across the country seem universally opposed to the litigation. They view with skepticism adoption practices in the United States, and the economic factors and profits at play.

“The Native American Rights Fund is closely following the lawsuits filed in Virginia, Minnesota, and now Arizona,” said NARF staff attorney Matthew Newman. “What is abundantly clear is that these lawsuits are part of a coordinated, well-financed attack on the rights of tribal nations to protect their children. It is open season on the Indian Child Welfare Act.”

“At this point it is pretty clear that anti-ICWA advocates, who primarily represent adoption interests, have started a coordinated attack on ICWA,” said Kate Fort, staff attorney and adjunct professor for the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law. “They are looking for cases of opportunity in courts across the country by inserting themselves and trying to make the same constitutional arguments against ICWA. But this lawsuit will absolutely hurt vulnerable children and families in our state child welfare systems. Their claims that ICWA’s protections are substandard is simply not true. ICWA’s standards are considered the gold standard of child welfare practice. To say these lawsuits to dismantle ICWA are in the best interest of the child is really contrary to what is considered best practices by child welfare professionals.”

Stephen Pevar, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the whole point of enacting ICWA was to end decades of unnecessary removals of Indian children from their homes and communities.

“Congress held years of hearings [before enacting ICWA] and many Indians who were victims of state foster care cases testified,” Pevar said. “Based on that testimony and other research, Congress found that it is in the best interests of Indian children to be raised in an Indian home except in extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, the Goldwater Institute is wrong in saying that Congress overlooked the ‘best interest’ standard. Instead, Congress accepted that standard and concluded that there’s a presumption that it’s in the best interest of Indian children to be raised in an Indian home. In addition, the Supreme Court has already rejected the notion that ICWA creates racial discrimination when it imposes minimum federal standards on state courts in their handling of Indian child custody cases.”

But ICWA has come under assault in courts all over the country in the last several months, say legal experts, in states unwilling to deviate from the “business-as-usual” approach, in which an average adoption can bring anywhere from $40,000 to 100,000 in fees and costs for private adoptions, depending on various factors, including living expenses for the birth mother.

In May, for example, Washington, D.C.-based attorneys Lori McGill and her husband, Matthew McGill, filed suit in federal court in Virginia seeking to challenge the new BIA guidelines which they believe impose “federalism” on state courts regarding the adoption of Indian children. Mrs. McGill, who played a key role in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl in 2013, told the National Law Journal in May that she gets emails on a weekly basis “from lawyers and adoptive parents telling me how ICWA is ripping their families apart.”

That same month, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals openly dismissed the new BIA guidelines in a case involving a 4-year-old Cherokee girl who had been placed in a non-Indian foster home during emergency proceedings in 2013. At the time, an ICWA-compliant home was not available, though a year later the tribe filed a motion to transfer the girl to a Cherokee family that the tribe had located. In ordering the girl to stay with her foster parents over the tribe’s objection, the court’s contempt for the new guidelines was palpable.

“The BIA guidelines’ intentional disregard of these factors results in a one-size-fits-all approach to the placement of children with any tribal affiliation,” the judges wrote. “That result may bear little resemblance to what is really in the child’s best interests, despite the self-serving pronouncements of the BIA guidelines.”

In June, adoption attorneys representing tribal parents in Minnesota filed another suit, Doe v. Jesson, in which they argued the Minnesota Indian Family Protection Act (MIFPA) violates constitutional due process in requiring notice of adoptions to the tribe. However, the Minnesota District Court denied a preliminary injunction based on state law requiring notice to tribes. The Court ruled that the MIFPA posed no threat of irreparable harm to the two tribal plaintiffs in complying with notice requirements. The tribe in the case, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, have declined to intervene.

But the litigation, said observers, strikes at the heart of not only of the Indian Child Welfare Act, but also the keystone of tribal sovereignty as a whole – the right of Indian tribes to determine their own membership and raise their children in their home communities.

“Using tragic stories to try to destroy the constitutionality of ICWA is not appropriate. As we know from Morton v. Mancari, Native status is a political identity not racial or ethnic, so laws that give any type of Indian preference or preferential treatment are not in violation of the equal protection clause,” said Victoria Sweet, a program attorney for the Reno, Nevada-based National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “It’s ironic that [the Goldwater Institute] would argue that Native children get less protections when they actually get more and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise when the reality is clearly the opposite. We are not yet at a point where the initial purpose of ICWA has disappeared. We still need this law. It still protects Native children.”

“It’s 38 years later and I still get mail from Indian people who tell me how important this legislation is,” Abourezk said. “The tribes need to mount a unified attack against this lawsuit because it’s good law and what they’re doing is wrong. It would be an enormous tragedy to see them overturn it.”

Children in the Crosshairs: The Emerging Battle Over Alaska’s Native Children

Suzette Brewer, Indian Country Today


Richard had made up his mind. By the time he was 16, the Yup’ik boy had been bounced around in foster care for years when he made the life-altering decision to escape. His four younger siblings had already been adopted out of the tribe, scattered among three white families, their whereabouts unknown to him and his village. But he was determined to remain a part of his community, no matter what the cost.

“The last straw came when my foster parents started hinting around and asking me how I felt about changing my name,” he recalls. “That’s when I decided that I was done. I told them that my name is Richard Lincoln III. I am the third. I am the oldest boy in my family. I was named after my father and his father. I was not going to change my name for anyone or anything. That is who I am. I didn’t want to be adopted. I wanted to go home.”

And so he walked away from foster care. Upon returning to his village, a coastal Yup’ik community on the western edge of Nelson Island in the Bering Sea, he called his foster parents and told them that he was going to stay in Tununak. From that day on, Lincoln made it a mission to find his four brothers and bring them back home as well.

Richard’s escape from a child welfare system that continues to ensnare hundreds of thousands of Indian children across the United States, and that his foster parents consented to allow him to stay with his village, is nearly unheard of. Considering that Native children usually outnumber their non-Indian counterparts by a ratio of up to 9:1 in foster care in some parts of the United States, Lincoln is one of the lucky few who managed to make it back to his home community. In spite of federal laws meant to protect the tribes, Indian children continue to be swept into foster care in non-Indian homes in huge numbers. Many are adopted out of their tribes or languish in foster care, aging out of a system that generates millions in federal subsidies for the states.

The Event Horizon

Today, Richard Lincoln III is 27 years old, and is now the ICWA worker for the Tununak Village, a position he took over in 2012, though he had no experience with the byzantine federal law and its requirements. But he did have one thing in his favor: As a Native child who had been through the never-ending carousel of foster homes and makeshift families, often feeling out of place and homesick, he understood precisely what it was like from the child’s point of view.

On his first day on the job, The Native Village of Tununak v. The State of Alaska landed on his desk, a case in which an Inupiaq grandmother has been fighting for custody of her now 6-year-old granddaughter since the girl was 4 months old.

Last September, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled against the village and the grandmother, noting that, despite the clearly defined placement preferences outlined in the Indian Child Welfare Act, neither had stepped forward to formally adopt the child known in the proceedings as “Dawn.” In its decision, the court cited points made in last year’s United States Supreme Court decision in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (commonly known as the “Baby Veronica” case), as helping establish parameters behind its decision for denying Dawn’s maternal grandmother, Elise, the right to raise her granddaughter.

The ensuing outrage among tribal advocates over Tununak and the resultant headlines have put the case—now more than likely headed for another appeal—at the forefront of the efforts of Indian nations to firmly establish adherence to ICWA in states that seemingly circumvent it with few signs of improving and suffering scant legal consequence. In response to Indian Country Today Media Network’s presentation of grandmother Elise’s account of her many struggles, Assistant Attorney General Jackie Shafer of the Alaska Department of Law delivered a lengthy rebuttal to Elise’s and the village representatives’ story. (Note: the original story has been edited to reflect the fact that the mother of Baby Dawn was not ‘sent’ to Anchorage, but lived there, gave birth to Dawn, and was not moved to a rehab facility—she did not attend any in-patient treatment. Also, the reason the court rejected the state’s appeal of Tununak I hinged on a “burden of proof” requirement, and was not related to any decision in the Adoptive Couple case as originally stated.)

RELATED: Children in the Crosshairs: Alaska Native Grandmother Fights ICWA Ruling

Though many points of the case are in dispute (if they were not, there would be not disagreement), in the interest of clarity and to offer our readers the state’s position as accurately as possible, we present here the unvarnished bulk of the rebuttal. To wit:

“Early on in the case, the mother informed OCS and the grandmother that she strongly did not want the child placed with the grandmother in the village.

The statement that Dawn was placed with the Smiths after her mother went to the rehab facility is true only in the limited sense that it ignores that Dawn was placed with several other placements before the Smiths. She was removed from her mother’s care in 2008 and the Smiths were her fourth placement since birth.

Even though Elise twice visited Anchorage in 2011, she never visited Dawn during those visits, nor did she write her any letters, send photos, or call. This was despite the adoptive parents’ efforts to keep in touch with Elise.

Elise participated in Dawn’s CINA case, had access to a lawyer through Alaska Legal Services, who represented her and the Tribe for free, Elise waited over three years to tell the court that she had an interest in taking custody of Dawn.

‘Early in the case, Elise says, OCS workers came to her village to inspect her home.’ That wasn’t an OCS worker, that was someone from AVCP—the organization that represented the tribe.

· ‘She had her home cleared of some fishing equipment and made a room ready for her granddaughter.’ That is inaccurate. Even at the placement hearing she said she had not completed these things. From the Court’s opinion: “In December 2009 a representative from the Village Council Presidents visited Elise’s home on OCS’s behalf and completed a Foster Home Visit Worksheet as part of the foster-care licensing process. The report noted a number of potential hazards in the home that needed to be addressed before placement could occur, including unsecured fuel, guns, medicine, and cleaning supplies, as well as plastic bags and “clutter” in Dawn’s potential bedroom. In February 2010 OCS discussed these concerns with Elise, and she said that she planned to address them. OCS asked Elise to arrange for a second home visit once these tasks had been completed.” At the placement trial, she testified that her home was still not ready.

‘On subsequent visits the OCS workers would find other requirements.’ This is inaccurate. No one ever went to her house again because she was supposed to notify OCS when she had fixed the problems identified by AVCP. She had not yet remedied those things by the time of the placement hearing, so that is probably why she did not notify AVCP/OCS to do another home inspection.

‘Elise found him [her son] another place to live.’ That is not true. From the Court’s opinion: “Elise also testified [at the placement hearing] that her son lived in her home again and helped out with chores, such as carrying water, shopping, cooking, and subsistence hunting. According to Elise, her son could not afford to return to Anchorage to complete the required alcohol treatment program, but he did not drink anymore and alcohol was not available in the village.” The adult son living with her had a bench warrant out for his arrest. This was one of the issues that AVCP notified Elise about regarding why her home was not currently a safe place to transfer a child.

‘At the time, Elise’s husband was dying of lung cancer.’ That’s not what she testified to—at the placement hearing she said he was in remission.

‘The adoption process was moving forward with no prior notification to the child’s grandmother or her tribe.’ That is not true at all. The Tribe had been a party to the case since the beginning and received notice of all the developments in the case, including OCS’ updates to the court about Dawn’s placement and pursuing an adoption home study.

‘By the time of the placement hearing in November 2011, however, Dawn’s fate had already been determined.’ This is incorrect. The placement hearing was a major turning point in the case and involved extensive testimony and presentation of evidence by both sides. The trial court devoted an entire day to the placement hearing and issued a 20-page substantive order describing all of the evidence at the hearing. Then that decision was appealed, and Dawn’s fate has been in limbo ever since.

‘I can’t afford the legal fees to fight this.’ Alaska Legal Services Corporation represented her for free.”

Elise, the tribe and their lawyers all firmly maintain that the state and its Office of Childrens’ Services (OCS) knew full well she intended to raise her granddaughter after her daughter’s parental rights were involuntarily terminated in 2011 and that she did everything humanly possible to make that happen including applying for a foster license, which she was not legally required to do. The state contends that by failing to file adoption papers, which neither she nor the tribe were ever told they were required to do, she had not met the requirements under the placement preferences because of the outcome in the Baby Veronica case.

Both Elise and the Association of Village Council Presidents strongly take issue with the court’s findings on Elise’s efforts to properly clean and secure her home, sharing the consensus that OCS and the state had made up their minds early on about Dawn’s fate that hindered Elise’s ability to gain custody of her granddaughter. (And, regarding another of the AG’s points above, it should also be noted that Elise’s husband, in fact, later died of lung cancer.)

“They knew all along that Elise wanted her granddaughter,” says Carol Brown, general counsel for the Association of Village Council Presidents, a consortium of Alaska Native Villages. “The attorney general, the social workers, prosecutors and guardian ad litems (GALs) are all on their own track and they’re very motivated to ‘win.’ The GALs, rather than doing what’s best for the child, will just defer to the legal counsel, and many don’t even bother going to the villages to assess the families. Oftentimes, these life-changing decisions are made from afar.

“I went to a hearing once where the guardian ad litem actually forgot the name of the child he was representing. So the reality is subverted. It’s not a ‘formal’ policy, but it’s definitely a reality on the ground.”

Cori Mills, the Public Outreach Coordinator for the Alaska Office of Children’s Services, denied allegations that their social workers are told off-the-record that the state “does not follow” ICWA as previously reported in ICTMN.

“OCS closely adheres to the Indian Child Welfare Act, throughout its policy manual and as a pillar of agency culture. Supervisors do not tell staff to disregard or that we do not ‘follow ICWA’,” said Mills, via email. “ICWA compliance has been and continues to be a top priority at OCS and an issue of daily conversation. OCS conducts significant trainings on the subject, and continue to support staff to explore race, ethnicity and culture in an effort to continually improve best practices when working with Alaska’s families.”

Many of the nearly dozen Native families contacted by ICTMN for this story who have been through the state’s child welfare system, including Elise’s, vociferously deny the state’s official position on the enforcement of ICWA, citing many of their futile efforts to reunify with their children. They believe Elise’s case is only unusual in the sense that she has stood up to a system that they feel is stacked against them.

“I don’t care what the state said, they’re lying,” said Elise, upon hearing the state’s response. “That’s what they do. They lie and intentionally keep moving these kids around to different homes and make it nearly impossible for the parents to reunite with their kids. My granddaughter lived in five different homes before she was 4. Five homes. How is that more stable than being with her own grandmother and her people?”

Previously, the tribe had agreed to allow Dawn’s placement in foster care with non-Indian foster parents in Anchorage so that she could be near her birth mother while she attended outpatient rehab. But after Dawn’s birth mother lost her parental rights, the Village of Tununak, as the party in the case, argued that there was no longer “good cause” to deviate from the placement preferences outlined in section 1915 of ICWA. By then, however, Dawn had been placed in her fifth foster home with Kim and Harry Smith in Anchorage, who according to insiders within social services, had been told by OCS they would be able to “keep” Dawn if they wished to adopt her.

From the beginning, the relationship between Elise and the Smiths was tense, particularly with Mrs. Smith. According to Elise and Tarzwell, it deteriorated even further after the couple filed adoption papers for Dawn four days before the placement hearing commenced in 2012 with no prior notice to the grandmother or the village. By that point, tribal officials said they began to realize the Office of Children’s Services had never intended to return Dawn to her family or village; they say, and Elise maintains, that there was no notice to the grandmother or the village when adoption papers were filed. Over the objections of Elise and the village, the girl was adopted by the Smiths in 2012. The tribe, represented pro bono by Sydney Tarzwell and James Davis Jr. of the Alaska Legal Services Corporation, appealed the adoption to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The case is a perfect illustration, say Indian child welfare experts, of the size of the gulf of the cultural divide between Natives and non-Natives, as rural, traditional communities run up against the legal doctrines and bureaucracy of official state government. It is indicative of the emerging battle over the rights of Indian children and their tribes under the Indian Child Welfare Act that was passed in 1978 to keep families and children together. Because of the widespread diaspora in the previous centuries, in which Indian children were often rounded up en masse and shipped off to colonial mission schools and later government boarding schools, tribes lost hundreds of thousands of children who never returned to their communities.

Within one generation, languages were broken, traditions and oral histories died, ceremonies became extinct. ICWA was passed to prevent another lost generation of children. Instead, experts and tribal leaders say it has just created more tension between states and tribes, who are usually at odds over the purpose and intent of ICWA and the legal standard of what constitutes “best interest” for tribal children.

“The state plays ‘hide the ball’ when faced with issues regarding Tribal jurisdiction,” said Brown. “[And there is] frustration with the constant barrage of litigation and narrowly-construed arguments to thwart Tribes’ efforts to self-govern, as demonstrated in this case.”

The Ripple Effect of Baby Veronica on ICWA

“The Alaska Supreme Court incorrectly interpreted the Baby Veronica decision and has turned ICWA on its head,” said Troy Eid, Chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission (ILOC), a nine-member bipartisan, volunteer panel that submitted its report, “A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer,” to the President and Congress in November 2013. In the report, Alaska is singled out among the 50 states with a stand-alone chapter outlining its poor treatment of tribes.

Eid, a former United States Attorney who is now in private practice in Denver, spent more than a month with his team visiting every section of the state whose system of governance he has characterized as “colonial” and outdated. The “Baby Dawn” case, he says, only reinforces his opinion of the state’s position on Native foster care.

“The foundational purpose of ICWA is to prevent states from improperly removing Native children from their parents, extended families, and tribes,” said Eid, whose firm represents the Association of Village Council Presidents, a consortium of Alaska Native tribes. “Nothing in ICWA—or for that matter, Baby Veronica—[says that] unless some eligible person, such as the grandmother here, has formally filed an adoption petition. This has the practical effect of gutting the statutory preferences, forcing Tribes and their citizens to file adoption petitions in order for those preferences to have any legal effect.”

This case, he maintains, returns Indian children to the pre-ICWA days when state laws presumed Native people to be unfit parents. By forcing grandparents and other family or tribal members to prove their worthiness runs headlong into the original intent and purpose of the federal law—“Even though Congress has said that the law is supposed to keep Native families together whenever possible, and not break them apart.”

Lost in Translation

Carol Brown, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from Wisconsin, has served as general counsel for the AVCP since 2010. Like Richard Lincoln III and Sydney Tarzwell, the Baby Dawn case came to her attention almost as soon as she hit the door at AVCP.

“We’ve been monitoring this case from the beginning,” said Brown. “When I was growing up, the Lac du Flambeau was one of the first tribes to have our own court systems. [In] Alaska and they are, through no fault of their own, 30 years behind many tribes in the lower 48. We’re past the Termination Era, but it’s like the 1950s they way they treat Indians here.”

Brown says she has witnessed many of the same problems in Alaska that tend to plague tribes in the lower 48 states: Cultural, linguistic and behavioral misunderstandings that often lead to bitter resentments and disputes between the Native inhabitants and their non-Indian neighbors.

“For example, they put out these little sheets in the Yup’ik language for the courts to use in ICWA hearings,” said Brown. “But you have to understand that there are many Yup’ik dialects and what may mean one thing to one band, may have a totally different meaning five miles away. So you can’t rely on a sheet of paper with words on it—you have to have the right interpreter in the room with the proper context of what’s actually being said.”

Brown concurred with the ILOC’s written opinion that “…the problems in Alaska are so severe and the number of Alaska Native communities affected so large, that continuing to exempt the State from national policy change is wrong. It sets Alaska apart from the progress that has become possible in the rest of Indian Country.”

On this particular point, the State of Alaska seems to agree.

“The State recognizes that the message of the report is sound, and that the State can and should be doing more to address the problems outlined in the Indian Law and Order Commission Report,” said assistant attorney general Jackie Schafer. “We are actively working on local solutions.”

Schafer pointed out that some of the solutions included negotiating “Civil Diversion Agreements” (CDA) with “several” Alaska tribes, but did not specify what, if any plans, were being made for the hundreds of other villages. Under these agreements, said Schafer, tribes would handle violations of certain state law misdemeanors and offenses in tribal court, including alcohol offenses, minor consuming or in possession offenses, as well as local option possession offenses in communities that have voted to ban alcohol, among others. But, apparently, none of the CDA’s would address specific tribal concerns with regard to the promulgation of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

In response to questions regarding the importance of self-determination and local governance that are crucial to the cohesion of tribal life, Schafer said the state is making efforts to collaborate with its tribal communities.

“Absolutely. This is one of the main reasons that the state is seeking to enter into the Civil Diversion Agreements with Alaskan tribes,” said Schafer. “One of the highest priorities of the State is to work as partners with tribes and Alaska Native communities to address the numerous challenges facing rural Alaska. The State, tribes, Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) corporations, and nonprofit entities are all diligently working to improve life in Alaska’s tribal communities.”

Returning Home to the Nest

When Richard Lincoln made the decision to stay in Tununak rather than return to his foster parents, he also made another, more personal decision: To find his brothers and bring them home.

“It took until we were all adults,” said Lincoln, who searched databases, made phone calls and wrote letters, searching for four people—all of whom now had different last names. “But we all wanted to go home. All five of us.”


Richard Lincoln III is seen here with his grandparents and three children. (Richard Lincoln III)
Richard Lincoln III is seen here with his grandparents and three children. (Richard Lincoln III)

Over the years, he managed to locate three of his brothers and bring them back to their ancestral village that sits on the Bering Sea.

“I made sure all my brothers came home—except one,” he said. “There is one still out there and I don’t even know if he’s alive. But I hope that one day we find him or he finds us. Because he is our brother. He is one of us. We want him to know we’re here, we’re home, and we’re waiting for him.”

For Lincoln, and many other Alaska Natives, the case of Baby Dawn has ignited a long simmering anger over the state’s recalcitrant attitudes toward what constitutes “best interests” for their children. But he continues his work as Tununak’s ICWA coordinator, because his tribe is small—with only about 400 members—and by now he has gained valuable experience that is crucial to the long-term survival of his people.

“This case has brought back some hard memories,” said Lincoln. “And it’s a situation that’s prevalent and it’s been this way for years—our children being adopted out to white families. But I won’t be surprised in 15 or 20 years if this little girl shows up in our village. And when she does, we will be here for her. Waiting.”



Partnerships helping rebuild Spirit Lake child protection programs

By Patrick Springer, The Jamestown Sun

FARGO — Partnerships involving the Spirit Lake Tribe, Bureau of Indian Affairs and others are credited with helping to rebuild child protection programs on the reservation.Wednesday will mark the two-year anniversary of the handover of child protection and foster care services from the Spirit Lake Tribe to the BIA.The switch, made at the prodding of the North Dakota congressional delegation, came in the midst of major gaps in the safety net for children on the reservation.Among other problems, Spirit Lake children were being placed in unsafe foster homes, and suspected abuse and neglect cases were not always investigated and followed up.The BIA continues to operate the child protection programs while the tribe delivers most other social services, although the tribe hopes someday to resume full responsibility for social services.“They’re making progress,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who noted staff vacancies still pose challenges. “Getting the right people and getting them trained is the priority.”The BIA has filled a supervisory social worker position but continues to bring in staff from other reservations to run programs. It is contracting with a firm to help maintain services until positions are permanently filled.“The contract will provide some stability there,” said Lawrence Roberts, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior for Indian Affairs, who visited Spirit Lake for 2½ days last week.“These social workers will be starting in a matter of weeks,” he said, referring to the contract workers, who first must clear a background check.Social workers are in demand throughout North Dakota, complicating the search, Roberts said.Meanwhile, the Spirit Lake tribe also is filling social services positions. It recently hired a case manager and is working to fill another case manager position, said Melissa Merrick-Brady.Candidates have been interviewed, and the position should be filled soon, and the tribe’s social services will be fully staffed, she said.“When I came, we had no case managers; we were struggling,” said Merrick-Brady, who became the tribe’s social services director in July after being appointed interim director in March. “The staff was overwhelmed, overworked.”The Department of Interior is providing a grant of almost $800,000 to bolster Spirit Lake’s tribal court and guardianship programs.The grant will pay for two guardians to represent vulnerable children, and a child service and Indian child welfare presenter to appear in court, Roberts said.The training and grants will help social services better coordinate with tribal court and guardians, and help lift some of the burden on social workers, Merrick-Brady said.The collaborative approach was highlighted last week with a symposium at Candeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, when officials laid out plans for improving services at Spirit Lake.“The discussion was extremely productive,” Roberts said. “You had all the relevant players in the room,” including the tribe, BIA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and state and local officials.“We have a lot of work to do, but I think the foundation was laid,” Roberts said.The North Dakota congressional delegation also is pursuing legislative remedies, including more stringent background checks of foster households for American Indian children.Legislation in the House and Senate would apply the same foster care standards in Indian Country that now are required elsewhere. The legislation has passed a House committee, and Hoeven expects Senate approval later this year or early next year.Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has introduced legislation to create a Commission on Native Children. If passed, she said, the bill “would help us tackle many of the challenges we’ve seen on Spirit Lake and go a long way in improving the lives of Native children.”The bill also would provide for a study into issues facing Native children, including high rates of poverty – such as unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse and few economic opportunities – and make recommendations on how to make sure Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities to thrive.Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., agreed that coordination among service providers at Spirit Lake has improved.“We have seen an improvement in terms of communication,” he said.

You are here Sen. Murkowski reverses position on ‘Alaska exception’ to domestic violence law

By Sari Horwitz, The Washington Post

The 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was heralded by President Barack Obama as a significant step for Native American women because it allows tribal courts to prosecute certain crimes of domestic violence committed by non-Native Americans and enforce civil protection orders against them.

Before the bill passed the Senate, however, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, added Section 910, known as the “Alaska exception,” that exempted Alaska Native tribes. Murkowski argued that her provision did not change the impact of the bill since even without it, the bill pertained only to “Indian country,” where tribes live on reservations and have their own court systems. As defined by federal law, there is almost no Indian country in Alaska.

Now, after pressure from Alaska Natives, Murkowski is reversing her position and trying to repeal the provision she inserted.

The senator’s change of mind is the subject of much debate in Alaska, with state officials saying that ending the exception won’t make any difference for Alaska Natives because it only applies to Indian country and the state already takes action to protect Native women and children. Tribes and the Justice Department, on the other hand, argue that repealing the provision will have a significant impact.

Associate Attorney General Tony West, who called for the repeal of the “Alaska exemption,” says that the state needs to enforce tribal civil protection orders in cases of domestic violence and that the legislative change would send a strong message about tribal authority.

“It’s important to send a very clear signal that tribal authority means something, that tribal authority is an important component to helping to protect Native women and Native children from violence,” said West, who testified in June before a hearing in Anchorage of the Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. “Those civil protective orders can help to save lives.”

Murkowski’s provision, which was originally an amendment she co-sponsored with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, in 2012, was supported by state officials. Begich has also changed his position since then.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty and Gary Folger, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, have said that Alaska is already enforcing civil protection orders issued by tribes to try to keep one person from stalking or committing abuse or violence against another person.

But Murkowski’s “Alaska exception” reopened a contentious debate surrounding criminal jurisdiction over Alaska Native villages, and it has created confusion among law enforcement officials.

Alaska Native women protested Murkowski’s exception, and the Indian Law and Order Commission called it “unconscionable.”

“Given that domestic violence and sexual assault may be a more severe public safety problem in Alaska Native communities than in any other tribal communities in the United States, this provision adds insult to injury,” the commission said.

Troy Eid, a former U.S. attorney and chairman of the commission, said that only one Alaska Native village has a women’s shelter. He and the other commissioners were stunned by what they heard in remote Alaska Native communities, he said.

“We went to villages where every woman told us they had been raped,” Eid said. “Every single woman.”

On her Facebook page last year, Murkowski wrote: “It hurts my heart that some Alaskans may think I do not fully support protecting Native women from violence with every fiber of my being.”

“In Alaska, we have one, and only one reservation: Metlakatla,” Murkowski wrote. “The other 228 tribes have been described by the U.S. Supreme Court as ‘tribes without territorial reach.’ The expansion of jurisdiction over non-members of a tribe is a controversial issue in our state, and what works in the Lower 48, won’t necessarily work here.”

Murkowski said she still has concerns about repealing the exemption but said in a statement: “We must turn the tide of the rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse in our state.”

NCAI Applauds President Obama’s Historic Visit to Indian Country

Source: National Congress of American Indians
WASHINGTON, DC – The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) applauds President Obama for upholding his ongoing commitment to tribal nations and Native peoples by travelling to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation this Friday, June 13. Since taking office, President Obama has remained steadfast in honoring our nation-to-nation relationship. President Obama has kept his commitment to host the annual White House Tribal Nations Summit in Washington D.C. These summits have facilitated unprecedented engagement between tribal leaders and the President and members of his Cabinet.
At the 2013 White House Tribal Nations Summit, the President announced that he would visit Indian Country himself – a longtime priority of tribal leaders. Friday’s visit to Standing Rock fulfills that promise. This historic visit is the first by a sitting President in over 15 years and makes President Obama only the fourth President in history to ever visit Indian Country.
NCAI expects the President to address the economic development needs of tribal nations and the needs of Native youth.  While tribal youth are included in the Administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, this Administration has always known that Native children have specific cultural and education needs that require focused attention.
For this reason, Indian Country has witnessed an unprecedented collaboration between the Secretary Jewell at the Department of the Interior and Secretary Duncan at the Department of Education, to study what is necessary to make sure that all of our Native students – in public schools, tribal schools, and Bureau of Indian Education schools have the tools they need to ensure a strong future for all Native children. In 2013, Secretary Jewell visited the Pueblo of Laguna to see first hand how a tribal education department was improving the quality of schools operations, performance and structure of BIE schools. She witnessed a nation that was engaged and excited to participate in efforts to improve educational outcomes in Indian Country.
It will take visits like this – the agencies working together with tribal governments and national organizations such as the NCAI and the National Indian Education Association to ensure that our students can be the future tribal leaders, teachers, health care workers, and entrepreneurs that our nations and the United States need to thrive for generations to come.
The President’s visit builds on ongoing efforts of his Administration to work closely with tribal nations on policy that affects their citizens. We trust the visit will be a catalyst for more policies that will not only succeed today, but cement the positive relationship between tribal governments and the federal government well into the future. President Obama has made annual summits between our nations in his words, “almost routine.” We trust this will be the continuation of his Administration’s engagement with our nations that makes visits to Indian Country by the President and his Cabinet routine too.
About The National Congress of American Indians:
Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights. For more information visit

DOJ Official Inspires Action at First Hearing on Effect of Exposure to Violence on Native Children

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, FileIn this Feb. 5, 2013 file photo, U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West gestures during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington. West is scheduled to be in Bismarck, N.D. on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, to talks about plans for a national task force to examine the impact of exposure to violence on American Indian and Alaska Native children.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File
In this Feb. 5, 2013 file photo, U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West gestures during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington. West is scheduled to be in Bismarck, N.D. on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, to talks about plans for a national task force to examine the impact of exposure to violence on American Indian and Alaska Native children.

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

“One of the reasons why it’s important for me to go to Indian country periodically is to remind myself that people living there do not give up. And if they’re not giving up, we’re not giving up,” U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West, the department’s third-highest official, told the Associated Press.

The first public hearing of the advisory committee of the 12-member Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence was held Monday, December 9 in Bismarck, North Dakota. The task force is divided into two tiers: a federal working group comprised of U.S. attorneys and officials from federal Interior and Justice departments, and an advisory committee of experts on Native American studies, child health and trauma and child welfare and law. The committee makes policy recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder.

RELATED: Eric Holder: First Public Hearing to Examine Impact of Violence on Native Children

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After graciously thanking all of his colleagues and others instrumental in making the Task Force a reality, West expressed deep appreciation to the Task Force Advisory Committee’s two co-chairs, former U.S. Sen. Dorgan and Iroquois composer and singer Joanne Shenandoah.

“As everyone in this room knows, Senator Dorgan has been a champion of North Dakota’s tribes during his entire career, including his 30 years in Congress. His commitment to children in tribal nations is unparalleled,” West said. “Likewise, Ms. Shenandoah is a highly respected and deservedly celebrated artist who has used her talent to call attention to the plight of children in Indian country. We are very fortunate to have them at the helm of this group and leading this effort, and I’m thankful, too, to the other members of the committee for their commitment and expertise.”

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Below is an except of West’s prepared remarks at the hearing:

“Fifty years ago Attorney General Robert Kennedy came here to Bismarck and spoke of the “tragic irony” of First Americans living in the freest country in the world yet imprisoned by conditions of poverty and deprivation — conditions not found in the natural order of things but manmade, imposed and perpetuated by bigotry and greed and violence.

And Attorney General Kennedy spoke of our responsibility to reverse that historical tide, so that the light of freedom, just dawning, he said, in his own lifetime, might fully shine on his children.

And so we’ve come here to Bismarck, a half-century later, to help fulfill that pledge, and to reaffirm a promise we must make to all of our children: that their safety and well-being is our highest priority; that they are sacred beings, gifts from the Creator to be cherished, cared for, and protected.

Because the simple, sad fact is that too many of our American Indian and Alaska Native children still suffer or witness violence in Indian country. Too many see family members or friends fall victim to violence; and too many are victims themselves.

And the impact this has on lives both young and old cannot be overstated. It tears at the fabric of family and community; it disrupts the present and too often darkens the future. The scars of violence can run deep and have impacts that can seep from one generation into the next.

We know from our own research at the Justice Department that a majority of America’s children—more than 60 percent—are exposed to some form of violence, crime, or abuse, ranging from brief encounters as witnesses to serious violent episodes as victims.

We know that, tragically, almost 40 percent are direct victims of two or more violent acts.

Often this violence occurs in the place where our children should feel the safest: at home. While domestic violence plagues many communities across the country, research shows that rates of domestic violence against Native women are among the highest in the entire United States.

And while we don’t know how many American Indian and Alaska Native children witness this kind of violence; or how many are removed from their homes and experience disruption in their lives as a result; or how many end up continuing the cycle by hurting others; we do know that the impact of on our kids having been exposed to violence can be serious, ranging from poor academic performance and drug and alcohol abuse to long-term psychological harm or even criminal behavior later in life.

But we also know something else: We know that we need not accept these outcomes as inevitable, because our young people are resilient and can return to living normal, healthy lives, as long as they have the benefit of proper intervention.

So as we listen to the testimony today, let us look for new ways in which we can engage all community members — tribal and spiritual leaders; elders and parents; teachers and coaches; and, importantly, young people themselves — let us all be enlisted to address this critical issue, because it is a challenge that requires no less.

Today’s hearing is an important step in that direction, and it’s a natural extension of work the Obama Administration has pursued to fulfill this nation’s trust responsibility and address the challenges that American Indian and Alaska Native communities face.

It grows out of the work that Attorney General Holder began three years ago with a new initiative he called “Defending Childhood.” The goal of Defending Childhood was to improve our knowledge about what works to reduce children’s exposure to violence and how to lessen the long-term adverse impacts of that exposure when it does occur.

And as part of that effort, as many of you know, the Attorney General appointed a national Task Force to identify ways to reduce children’s exposure to violence and to recommend policy changes at the federal level to meet that goal.

We’re implementing one of those recommendations this morning:  a special effort aimed at examining and addressing the exposure of American Indian and Alaska Native children to violence, in ways that recognize the unique government-to-government relationship between sovereign tribal nations and the United States.

There are two parts to this special task force: a Federal Working Group comprised of high-ranking federal officials who work with tribal communities everyday; and an Advisory Committee made of up experts with insights into children’s exposure to violence in native communities.

Now, the Federal Working Group was formed because we know there are things we can do now—things that need not wait for more study—that can have a direct and immediate impact in kids’ lives right now.

So officials from the Departments of Justice, the Interior, and Health and Human Services with proven dedication and experience in Indian country have come together as part of this Federal Working Group to do just that.

And already, they are making a difference.  Here’s one example.  About a year ago, I traveled to the Ute Mountain Ute and Northern Cheyenne reservations.  And among the places I visited were the detention centers, where both adults and juveniles are held.

Now it’s always tragic whenever a young person is locked up; but that tragedy is compounded when that child is warehoused without any assistance that can help prevent that child from future incarceration. And in these two facilities, kids weren’t getting access to adequate educational programming or counseling.

So the Federal Working Group came together and tackled this issue, cutting through the red tape and working together such that contracts are now being secured for teachers who will provide culturally-sensitive educational and counseling services to native youths held in those BIA detention facilities at both Ute Mountain Ute and Northern Cheyenne.

Now, in addition to addressing those immediate issues, we must also develop a strategic approach to the long-term issues of violence that affect children in Indian country. So we’ve augmented the work of the Federal Working Group with an Advisory Committee of experts who have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of children in native communities.

Over the next year, the Advisory Committee will travel the country, holding hearings and listening sessions. They will comb through the research and consult with others to help us paint a clearer picture of the incidence of violence among native children, and help identify ways to prevent it.

And next fall, the Advisory Committee’s work will culminate in a final report—a strategic plan of action that will guide practitioners and policymakers at all levels. And, like the work of the Defending Childhood Task Force, the recommendations of the Advisory Committee will not sit on some shelf collecting dust; as the Attorney General said in his greeting this morning, your work will serve as a blueprint that will guide us into the future.

So this is our charge and our challenge. Today represents an early and important step in protecting American Indian and Alaska Native children. No one here expects this work to be easy, or that the efforts we embark on here will lead to a panacea. But it is an investment—an investment in our children; in the future of sovereign tribal nations on this continent; an investment we fail to make at our own peril, and one whose return will be measured not in dollars and cents, but in the young smiles you create; the doors of hope you will open; the futures you will shape; and the lives you will change.

Thank you for commitment to this work.”



Comprehensive bill introduced to improve lives of Native children



WASHINGTON – United States Senators Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced a comprehensive plan on Oct. 30 to find solutions to the complex challenges facing Native American children throughout Indian Country.

The bipartisan legislation, Heitkamp’s first bill as a senator, would create a national Commission on Native American Children to conduct an intensive study into issues facing Native children – such as high rates of poverty, unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and few economic opportunities – and make recommendations on how to ensure Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities to thrive. 

Heitkamp and Murkowski are both members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“We have all heard stories or seen first-hand the struggles that too many Native children and their families face from extreme poverty to child abuse to suicide. Since I’ve been in public office, I’ve worked to address many of these challenges, and I’m proud my first bill as a U.S. Senator will take a serious look at finding solutions to better protect Native children and give them the opportunities they deserve,” said Heitkamp. “Tragically, for children in our nation’s tribal communities, the barriers to success are high and they are the most at-risk population in the country, facing serious disparities in safety, health and education.”

She said the government needs to strive for a day when Native children no longer live in third-world conditions; when they don’t face the threat of abuse on a daily basis; when they receive the good health care and education to help them grow and succeed.

“The federal government pledged long ago to protect Native families and children. We haven’t lived up to that promise. But we can change that,” Heitkamp said.

Murkowski agreed that the federal government must uphold its trust responsibility to tribes, especially to Native children.

“This commission will examine from the lens of justice, education, and healthcare how to improve the lives of our Nation’s native children,” Murkowski said.

Conditions for young people in Indian Country are tragic: 37 percent of Native children live in poverty; suicide rates are 2.5 times the national average for children 15-24 years old; high school graduation rate for Native students is nearly 50 percent, compared to more than 75 percent for white students; and while the overall rate of child mortality in the U.S. has decreased since 2000, the rate for Native children has increased 15 percent.

Tribal governments face numerous obstacles in responding to the needs of Native children. Existing program rules and the volume of resources required to access grant opportunities stymie efforts of tribes to tackle these issues. At the same time, federal agencies lack clear guidance about the direction that should be taken to best address the needs of Native children in order to fulfill our trust responsibility to tribal nations.

To help reverse these impacts, the Commission on Native Children would conduct a comprehensive study on the programs, grants, and supports available for Native children, both at government agencies and on the ground in Native communities, with the goal of developing a sustainable system that delivers wrap-around services to Native children. 

Then, the 11-member commission would issue a report to address a series of challenges currently facing Native children. A Native Children Subcommittee would also provide advice to the commission. The commission’s report would address how to achieve: better use of existing resources, increased coordination, measurable outcomes, stronger data, stronger private sector partnerships, and implementation of best practices.