State begins transfer of child welfare services to tribal communities

The Office of Children’s Services and tribal governments are taking the first steps to implement an agreement that transfers control of welfare services for Alaska Native children from the state to a group of 18 tribal governments and organizations.

During a meeting with the Senate Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday, OCS Director Christy Lawton updated lawmakers on the Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact transition, including the initial program priorities, funding options and the status of child welfare services for Alaska Native children under OCS.

The first of its kind between the State of Alaska and tribal governments, the government-to-government compact was signed in October to improve persistent disparities in child welfare services for Alaska Native children.

Although Alaska Native children make up only 22 percent of the population, they made up 61 percent of the 2,855 children in state custody as of Feb. 13, according to statistics Lawton presented to the committee.

Just as Alaska Native children are almost three times as likely to be in foster care, they are also more likely to have poor outcomes than their non-Native counterparts, Lawton told the committee.

In 2016, 55 percent of Alaska Native and Native American children were unified with parents, while 71 percent of non-Native children were reunified.

Lawton said while the percent of Native children in state custody has shifted up and down slightly during her eight-year tenure at OCS, the overall trend has remained the same.

“We have really failed in making any significant headway in really reducing the disparities in terms of who’s in foster care and what their outcomes are once they are in our system,” she said.

The compact transfers state child welfare services related to tribal children, including adoption, foster care and abuse and neglect investigations, to participating tribal governments and organizations.

In fiscal year 2018, compact members will begin taking over three key pieces of child welfare responsibilities identified as most critical — finding relatives of children needing foster care, arranging visitations between children and parents and doing a safety checks of homes where a child might be fostered, which has been particularly challenging for OCS when relatives who could foster a child are in remote locations and a caseworker isn’t on hand.

“The tribe is potentially there in the community. They could send one of their staff over, walk through the home and provide us information and help us determine is this a safe place we could send the child,” Lawton said. “So there’s not this lag time that we see now. Because it takes so long to get our workers out to where the families are to do that.”

The compact does not require new funding for the services taken over by tribal governments, but will use funds transferred from OCS for services they already provide. Lawton said the office is currently identifying ways to make operations more efficient and evaluating its current budget to decide on what funds it can redirect.

Melanie Bahnke, president and CEO of Kawerak Inc., a regional association representing Native villages in the Bering Straits region, told lawmakers that the compact stemmed from a need for a new holistic approach to providing child welfare services to Alaska’s Native children.

“OCS’s mandate is child welfare — safety of children first. And this is certainly going to be our approach,” Bahnke said. “But where we’re going to be able to take it to the next level, we’re going to be looking at the wellbeing of family units, on top of child safety.”

One part of that holistic approach is making sure there’s immediate community intervention when there’s a report of potential child abuse. OCS receives approximately 15,000 reports of potential child abuse a month, often involving multiple children, Lawton said. Of those, about half eventually get investigated. The other 50 percent of cases are screened out.

After the compact was signed last year, the agency began sending reports of potential child abuse in real time through secure messaging to tribal authorities, allowing community intervention at the first sign of child abuse.

“Which I think is so exciting because it really could slow down the trajectory of families where the problems are just growing, and they ultimately make their way back to us,” Lawton said.

Reach Erin Thompson at erin.thompson@peninsulaclarion.com.

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