Shana King, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, spent more than three years in foster care as a teen. She lost her own children to the system during a struggle with heroin.
Since then, she has gotten her children back, bought a home, and received a national award for her work as a mentor. She badly wants to be a foster parent to American Indian children in Hennepin County, Minnesota’s most populous metro area.
But because of the drug history, the county says she can’t.
“You can’t have certain things in your background or on your record, even if you’ve changed your life around,” King said. “But there is such need right now.”
She is right about that. Minnesota’s foster care totals have surged in recent years, and American Indian children are removed at vastly disproportionate rates compared to white children.
They are also 20 times more likely to be identified as victims with prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol than white children, according to Minnesota’s 2016 Child Maltreatment Report.
The Imprint’s recent report, The Foster Care Housing Crisis, found that the total number of Minnesota’s foster care beds was flat between 2012 and 2017, while the number of foster youth rose by 60 percent. The state nearly doubled its reliance on relative caregivers between 2012 and 2015, from 17 percent of kids to 31 percent.
An American Indian child is 17 times more likely to enter foster care than a white child in Minnesota, according to 2016 report from The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
But according to federal assessments of the state, Minnesota has a “severe shortage of foster homes for all children, especially for African American and Native American children.” Minnesota’s 2016 Out-of-Home Care and Permanency Report bears this out, finding that the state had just 1,004 American Indian foster family homes for its 3,350 American Indian children and youth in foster care.
“We absolutely see racial disparities in Minnesota, in particular to the Native American and African-American families,” said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy administrator for Hennepin County’s Health and Human Services Department. “It’s really hard for families to accept child protection coming into their world to say ‘we’re here to help you’ because that is seen as a removal arm of government.”
DeCubellis is leading the county’s efforts to prevent more foster care removals of Indian children, and keep more of those who do come into the system connected to their tribes. So far, it’s been a bumpy road.
In Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, American Indian children make up 22 percent of the foster care population.
The state’s child maltreatment report showed that Hennepin County had 567 “alleged victims” of maltreatment who were American Indian children and youth in 2016.
But rules around certification of homes have stifled the ability to draw in American Indian foster homes and kinship caregivers.
“Lifetime prohibitions” is what DeCubellis calls a set of offenses that prevents would-be foster parents in tribal communities, like Shana King, from being licensed. These could be old criminal charges, a prior maltreatment report, or a history of addiction – even if an aunt or grandmother has been clean for decades.
“We’ve got to get some of those barriers out of the community’s way, because what’s happening is our Native American children are sitting longer in placement, and they’re sitting longer in our shelter homes,” DeCubellis said. “One strategy is we have to change those policies that prohibit those families.”
King, who worked as a parent mentor for the ICWA Law Center in Minneapolis until this past December, also says licensing requirements need flexibility beyond a single checkbox asking if someone has a criminal record.
“Maybe Grandma in 1980 got a felony charge for drugs, but now she can’t be a foster placement,” King said, adding that, without a license, kin aren’t eligible for reimbursement if they take kids in on an informal basis.
Heather Benjamin of the American Indian Family Center believes a lack of resources is what prevents more American Indian families from hosting children in foster care.
“There are a lot of Native American people who aren’t able to be foster parents because of space, or they may have families of their own,” she said. “It takes a lot to take in a child.”
The Imprint reached out to numerous organizations that serve the state’s tribal communities – including American Indian Family and Children Services, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, the Upper Midwest American Indian Center and Minnesota’s Division of Indian Work – but none elected to speak with us for this story.
Distrust of the government is also a significant barrier, according to everyone who was interviewed for this story. Many members of American Indian communities may be unwilling to submit to background checks with the government. This can make licensing difficult in American Indian homes, where multigenerational living arrangements are common and might otherwise be viewed as a strength.
A 2011 NPR series on the removal of American Indian children in South Dakota demonstrated that some jurisdictions continue to treat tribal communities unfairly. According to David Simmons, director of government affairs and advocacy at the National Indian Child Welfare Administration (NICWA), bias against tribal families persists in the United States today.
“While many of the most violent and destructive policies have ceased since the 1980’s, we still see tribal families besieged by modern-day bias from individuals and state child welfare systems that result in disproportionate placement of tribal children in state foster care systems,” Simmons wrote in an email to The Imprint.
Simmons also noted that tribal families are more likely to receive harsher responses and less likely to receive the healing services they need to keep their children at home.
“These experiences have led to many tribal families being very distrustful of state and federal government agencies,” Simmons said.
King, who does outreach to child welfare-involved American Indian families, says even though ICWA Law Center isn’t involved in the removal of a child from a family, people are intimidated and hesitate to accept the center’s help. “The verbiage around child protection is scary for Native people,” King said.
The focus in Hennepin County, DeCubellis says, has to be on prevention and early intervention, like getting a family the resources they need to buy their kid a good winter coat before a teacher, who may not know the difference between neglect and poverty, files a maltreatment report. It’s also about training the teacher to recognize that difference.
“Partnering with community-based organizations is critical,” DeCubellis said. “How do we empower them to invest in families? That means changing what we pay for.”
DeCubellis emphasizes that allowing more flexibility when it comes to licensing restrictions is the most important tactic the county could employ, alongside prevention efforts.
“A part of our push from a county perspective is to say ‘we get why the rules are in place, but we need to have some exceptions to those rules when we think something is in the best interest of the child,’” she said. “So how do we get those rules to not be black and white but to have some additional review levels that paint a picture of what this family needs and what this child needs?”
But states and counties also need to examine how they approach tribal communities when seeking resource families to add to their rosters.
“Many state or private foster care licensing agencies use standards that do not align with tribal culture and realities so many families become alienated by these mainstream methods and either don’t complete the licensing process or only keep their license active for a short time,” NICWA’s Simmons said.
King believes that a lot of foster parents are pulled into foster care by the promise of adoption, especially of American Indian children, and the birth parent advisory council she serves on is working to change that.
“I think building a relationship between the birth parents and the foster care parents would be such a significant change in our foster care system,” and would help speed permanency, King said.
DeCubellis’ office was granted a $26 million budget specifically to redesign Hennepin’s child welfare services and procedures, including how it works with American Indian families. She said she has made collaborating with tribal governments a priority in this project.
But with the aforementioned licensing barriers and trust issues in the way, that is not easy.
Her team proposed placing children in non-tribal homes and partnering with the tribe on programs to ensure the child stays connected to their culture while in care. Training the foster parents in tribal culture might be one component of this, but more importantly, DeCubellis said, is appointing someone from the community who may already have a relationship with the child who can serve as a “bridge” mentor. That person might make sure the child gets to participate in sweat lodges, dances or coming-of-age tribal activities.
Tribal leadership declined DeCubellis’ proposal, even as a temporary fix for the lack of appropriate homes. But she’s committed to finding a solution that works for everyone but, most importantly, one that helps American Indian kids see better outcomes.
The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which represents all the state’s tribes, declined to comment on why DeCubellis’ proposal was rejected, as did the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which is located near Minneapolis.
“If that’s not the right idea, let’s keep throwing ideas on the table, but none of us can sit still because these kids desperately need us to come together,” DeCubellis said. “Do we build enough trust leadership to leadership?”
Historically, tribes have not fared well when entering conditional agreements with the U.S. government. According to Simmons, of NICWA, despite the mandate of the Indian Child Welfare Act, “tribal children are denied placement with their relatives and other tribal members because of systemic bias and failures by state child welfare agencies to carry out recruitment strategies that address historic distrust and utilize tribal and urban Indian agency expertise.”
Simmons also points out that many tribal families have reported they are overlooked by non-tribal agencies when non-tribal families are available. This occurs when tribal families are licensed by a tribal agency, he says, even though federal policy dictates that tribal licensing is equivalent to state licensing.
King, DeCubellis and Simmons all agree: the same old child welfare practices don’t consider the structure of tribal families, and don’t work for tribal communities.