More than half of Native American children in California who are taken into foster care end up in non-Indigenous households.
Assembly Bill 1862, which has so far met unanimous support in both houses of the state Legislature, would provide annual funding for tribes to recruit foster parents among their members, and to refurbish and repair homes so they meet standards necessary to safely accommodate children.
The bill is authored by Assemblymember James Ramos, the first Native American elected to the California State Assembly.
In an interview, Ramos described the need for his bill, noting that county governments and private agencies provide many willing foster parents with the funds they need to meet licensing requirements — such as childproofing fireplaces or repairing fences. But to date, that assistance has not been widely available for tribal homes.
“We’re closing that loophole on those to make sure that people are treated fairly and equally across the board,” Ramos said. He added that the funding is critical “so that a Native American family can be compensated for upgrading the rooms or places in their homes, to ensure that it’s a safe living condition for Native American children.”
Resources made possible under the bill would cover costs to approve prospective foster parents, such as fingerprinting and background checks. It could also be used for outreach and recruitment.
When an Indigenous child is taken into foster care, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and California state law require county agencies to make efforts to place the child with a member of their family, tribe or another Indigenous community. Non-native homes, under the law, are to be considered a last resort.
Despite these stringent laws, state data show that 56% of California’s Indigenous foster children end up in non-tribal homes. A legislative analysis of AB 1862 outlines the harm that results: “This legacy of cultural erasure, and racism, is furthered by the majority of Indian children being placed in non-familial homes that are not tied to the child’s culture.”
The impact is far-reaching in California, where more than 1.4 million people have Native American or Alaska Native heritage, according to the 2020 census. There are 109 federally recognized Indian tribes, located near cities like San Diego and Sacramento and in rural areas from desert to coastal areas and close to the Arizona, Oregon and Nevada borders.
A 2017 report by the California Tribal Families Coalition, the bill’s sponsor, stated that historically, counties and tribes have disagreed on which entity should cover the costs for necessary repairs and upgrades to tribal foster homes. Tribes consider it the responsibility of counties — under the federal mandates of ICWA, which require “active efforts” to prevent separating a Native child from home and kin. Counties have often refused, and instead called on tribes to pay.
“Covering these costs is not an option for all tribes, since most California tribes still lack significant financial resources of their own, and do not have access to the same considerable funding streams that agencies do,” the report states. “The significance of the counties’ failure here cannot be overstated. By refusing to pay for repairs or refusing to place in a tribally approved home, the Indian child suffers by being in multiple unnecessary placements.”
To be sure, the amount of funding under the bill is limited. If passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), each eligible tribe or tribal organization in the state could receive $75,000 annually to help cover the costs associated with recruiting and approving foster homes. The total cost to the state, as estimated by legislative analysts, would amount to between $5 and $8 million per year, depending on how many federally recognized tribes in California opt in.
The bill — which has passed the Assembly and is now being considered by the Senate — would also provide $200,000 a year to create a new position in the state’s Office of Tribal Affairs and to cover Department of Social Services administrative costs.
The newly approved state budget has fully funded the initiative based on the cost estimates set by legislative analysts, with $8.2 million annually allocated on an ongoing basis.
California’s Native American children are present in the foster care system at four times their rate in the general population, according to a March report by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. They are also among the least likely to “achieve permanency,” the Department of Social Services reports — a term signifying a child has reunited with family, been adopted or entered into a legal guardianship.
AB 1862, which aims to keep children closer to their tribes and Indigenous communities, is supported by the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake and the National Association of Social Workers’ California chapter. No formal opposition has been submitted.