Tribes and Fostering Connections

Judge Raquel Montoya-LewisJudge Raquel Montoya-Lewis (Isleta/Laguna Pueblos), Lummi Tribal Court

Summary: The Fostering Connections to Success Act supports tribal self-governance in child welfare as well as provides challenges for tribes as we attempt to develop culturally appropriate child welfare programs that also comply with the federal requirements.


People who work in child welfare at every level often hear that "tribes are different." Many have some basic understanding of the Indian Child Welfare Act and many states have training in place to address the unique requirements of ICWA. Consider these reflections …What really makes tribes different? Do Native children have the same needs as all other children? Do they deserve the same parenting as other children? Should they have the same health and safety requirements?

Children are children; yes! They all need and deserve love, safety, education, and health care. We need to look closely to really understand how child welfare programs can improve to better serve Native children and families. Fostering Connections provides a vehicle for discussing many of those issues.

Leah is an eight year old girl, who has spent most her life living on her tribe's reservation. She is a ward of the tribal court and lives in foster care in a non-Native American home because her county has very few Native American foster homes. Her mother has a serious addiction and currently has pending criminal charges for drug delivery. Leah's father is in jail, serving a one year term for domestic violence involving Leah's mother.

Leah's mother grew up in and out of foster care; she was born in a treatment facility for pregnant mothers who were addicted to drugs. Leah's grandparents on both sides grew up off the reservation in federally run boarding schools for Native children. Her grandparents suffered sexual and physical abuse in the boarding schools, and after they returned to the reservation they found little work and depended upon social programs to provide for their families.

Leah has an enormous extended family of aunts, uncles and grandparents, some of whom are directly blood related, some of whom are not. When you ask Leah who her "real" aunties and grandmothers are, she doesn't understand your question. She says "they are all real" and laughs, thinking you are making a joke. But Leah lives in foster care, off the reservation because none of her family members can meet the state and federal mandates for placement.

Fostering Connections allows tribes to develop child welfare programs using the federal dollars that meet the needs of families like Leah's. The most critical piece of Fostering Connections for tribes centers on the act enabling tribes to draw Title IV-E reimbursement directly from the federal government, rather than working through the states' IV-E programs. While the funding becomes accessible to tribes through Fostering Connections, it comes with significant requirements, many of which run counter to tribal cultural values. There are two key requirements: data collection and federal permanency-planning timelines.

Tribes have been "studied" for more than two hundred years and rarely has the data collected been used to the benefit of tribal people. Thus, there is significant resistance to the very concept of data collection. From my perspective as a judge and researcher, data is critical and necessary. But I have yet to meet with a tribal government that has not met the concept of data collection with suspicion. Tribal governments are often wary of raising issues or giving reason for state and federal governmental intervention. Such intervention has never been positive for tribal communities. There is serious work to be done to ensure that the collection of data will result in the improvement of our work together in Indian child welfare and not in the imposition of more onerous requirements aimed at fixing "the Indian problem."

We can all agree that children deserve permanency. The required timelines do not give much flexibility or allow the time needed to address intergenerational and historic trauma impacting children like Leah. In tribal communities, it is hard to overstate the impact of our history and its effects on families today. In many of our communities, it is common to go back three or four generations before finding parents who were able to reside in the same home as their children without the threat of governmental intrusion into their lives due to child removals, boarding schools and relocation programs. For many Native families in child welfare cases, that trauma has crippled their ability to respond to services. Requiring that they do so within a year ignores that history.

Indian child welfare has been grossly underfunded for decades. For every dollar spent by a state on a child in state care, the federal government reimburses the state 60 cents. By contrast, tribes are reimbursed 15 cents per child in tribal care. Tribes across the country struggle to fund basic services in every aspect of governance. This disparity impacts Indian child welfare in every way. Fostering Connections begins to rectify that disparity, however raises complex questions that necessitate important discussions between tribal, state and federal governments.

I appreciate the opportunity to discuss Fostering Connections related to Indian child welfare and tribal communities. Fostering Connections supports tribal self-governance in child welfare as well as provides challenges for tribes as we attempt to develop culturally appropriate child welfare programs that also comply with the federal requirements. We all have much to learn from one another to ultimately provide better outcomes for all children.

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