A Minnesota tribal community and county have announced a partnership that aims to better serve Native parents and kids in family and criminal cases through more coordinated court processing.
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Itasca County, located in northern Minnesota, will design and pilot family-centered solutions for people in criminal or dependency court cases. One of the project leaders, Minnesota Ninth District Judge Korey Wahwassuck, said she hopes the project will give families better outcomes and keep them out of the judicial system all together.
“If families are actually able to heal … it’s much less likely they’re going to come back into the system,” said Wahwassuck, who once served as an associate judge for the Leech Lake tribe.
Itasca County Public Health Division Public Health Division Manager Kelly Chandler said the project includes community members involved in probation, health and human services, child protection services, mental health services, and the court system. Currently, the pilot program is solely funded by a two-year, $207,000 grant from the Bush Foundation, but Chandler said the parties may explore other funding opportunities in the future.
“Tribal communities are disparately represented in all of these scenarios within Itasca County,” Chandler said. “We’re looking at ways that we can work with the families differently.”
One family-centered solution includes coordinating scheduling to put a family’s cases with one judge on a singular day. Wahwassuck said it is common for several members of one family working through the court system to have meetings in district or tribal court every day of the week.
For example, transportation is a huge hurdle for many families, especially since the ninth judicial district is geographically the largest district in the state. In some cases, a parent works through a criminal case, which brings up a child protection issue, and then Wahwassuck said she saw a high percentage of those kids for delinquency or truancy cases down the line, she said.
“It especially happens with our tribal families,” Wahwassuck said. “There’s really not any coordinated way to assist this family as a family unit.”
Wahwassuck added that the ninth judicial district has the highest numbers of probation revocations for Native Americans. She hopes this project will help them deliver better results, she said.
When it comes to court involvement, she said, “Minnesota has the highest rates of disparities of any state right now.”
Judge Megan Treuer, who serves in Leech Lake Tribal Wellness Court as well as in three other tribal court jurisdictions, said families are empowered to find solutions when they work with one judge.
“The less overwhelmed the family feels, the more likely they are to engage,” Treuer said. “It gives them the chance to have a meaningful conversation about whatever problems may be going on.”
Chandler added they will also include families in the design process, likely using focus groups to better understand the barriers that exist for families and the solutions that will be useful.
“We’re really working on building stronger relationships between the tribal entities that are involved as well as the county agencies,” Chandler said.
The Bush Foundation is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and makes grants for innovative problem-solving in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share that geography.
Mandy Ellerton, the foundation’s community innovation director, said she was excited by the tribe and county’s collaborative approach to solving a problem in their community.
“It could be transformative for the whole region over time,” she said. “We’re excited to back these folks on this tough issue and appreciate their courage.”