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.

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