Alaska Transfers Child Welfare Services for Native Alaskans to Tribes

Alaska creates Tribal Welfare Compact to allow Alaskan tribes to oversee child welfare services. According to Nicole Borromeo, executive vice president of the Alaskan Federation of Natives: “Our children deserve this. This compact is for them.”

In Alaska, a coalition of tribal governments has now begun to assume responsibility for offering some child welfare services to Alaska Native children.

The Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact, which was signed into law in October 2017 by Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I), allows 18 Alaska tribes to provide child welfare services with the goal of reducing the disproportionate number of Native children in foster care in the state.

Previously, these services were managed solely through the state’s Office of Children’s Services (OCS). This compact between the government and tribal organizations is the first of its kind in the United States, officials say.

“It’s going to change the trajectory of our future,” Nicole Borromeo, executive vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, says in a video about the compact. “We’re going to be able to pinpoint this moment in time 15 years from now, 10 years from now and say this is when it changed.”

According to the compact, 57 percent of Alaska’s foster children in out-of-home care are of Native descent despite only making up 18.9 percent of the overall population of children in the state.

Reunification rates are also lower among Alaskan Natives, as is visitation while in foster care, according to the compact. It also cites concerns about high rates of Alaskan Natives being adopted into non-Native families.

Christy Lawton, director of Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services.

OCS Director Christy Lawton said that state and tribal leaders have been working to correct these disparities for decades, but that previous efforts “have not been as transformative as needed.”

“The Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact long-term vision provides the best opportunity for a true paradigm shift in Alaska’s child welfare system,” Lawton said in an email to The Imprint. 

Per the contract between the tribes and the state’s Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), the 18 tribes will, over time, assume responsibility for many welfare services for tribal children, including child abuse investigations and managing adoption and foster care placements.

The early stages of implementation have tribal governments taking over three key tasks in 2018: identifying eligible kin caregivers, facilitating visitations between foster youth and families and doing safety checks on potential foster homes. Tribes likely will not begin conducting child abuse investigations until fiscal year 2020 or later, Lawton said.

“The long-term vision is that they would provide the entire continuum of child welfare services in Alaska if they choose to do so,” Lawton told The Imprint.

Funding for the services will largely continue to go through OCS, which will transfer money to the tribal compact members for the services being provided. Tribal governments also have the option of entering into a direct agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to receive federal Title IV-E reimbursements for some family services, foster care and adoption assistance.

Tribes were granted the right to establish their own IV-E agencies under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed into law in 2008. Additionally, many of the participating tribes already have Title IV-B agreements that provide federal funds for programs and services aimed at preventing child abuse, Lawton said.

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