A new state law that took effect August 5 in Alaska aims to “address and improve deep structural inequities” in the state’s child welfare system — protecting residents should broader federal protections be overturned by a pending Supreme Court case.
Specifically, HB 184 solidifies the state’s intergovernmental relationship with the tribes and codifies the protections of the Indian Child Welfare Act, the 1978 federal law providing Indigenous communities enhanced protections from foster care separation. The law known as ICWA faces a Nov. 9 challenge before the nation’s highest court.
But the Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact will protect Alaska Native families, even when there are shifts in state administrations. It became law earlier this month without the sitting governor’s formal approval, following a bill signed by Alaska’s former Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, and 18 tribal co-signers representing 161 federally-recognized tribes.
The Act ensures that tribes and tribal organizations can utilize foster care prevention programs that integrate the traditional, cultural beliefs of Indigenous communities in Alaska, paving the way for a more relevant and culturally appropriate child welfare system in the state. According to an Alaska House Coalition press release, signatories are now empowered “to provide quality children and family services as close to home as possible. The model is lauded nationally and has been replicated in other states.
“Children are the most vulnerable members of our communities; protecting them and helping them to thrive is the most important work we can do,” Association of Village Council Presidents CEO Vivian Korthuis stated in the press release. “We all have the responsibility to take care of all our children. Tribes have the same goal as the State — better outcomes for Alaskan children, and as partners we can transform child welfare together.”
The makes Alaska one of many states now finding ways to protect state residents in the event that the landmark ICWA law is struck down by the Supreme Court. To date California, Oregon, Washington, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Oklahoma have similar local laws in place.
States are either strengthening their versions of the federal law, or are entering into government-to-government agreements — like this recent Alaska legislation —between state child welfare agencies and one or more tribes.
“Tribal compacting is the way out of Alaska’s child welfare crisis,” said Alaska Federation of Natives Executive Vice President and General Counsel Nicole Borromeo.
The landmark state-tribal compact Borromeo helped facilitate began in 2017, “to address and improve deep structural inequities in Alaska’s child welfare system,” according to the press statement.
State leaders also praised the agreement. “The Tribal Child Welfare Compact is an excellent example of the State capitalizing on the excellent work of Alaska Tribes and working together to improve the way we are meeting the needs of Alaska families,” stated Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (D), who served as prime sponsor of HB 184. “Healthy communities begin with healthy families. When our children succeed, so does Alaska.”