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March 2009Vol. 10, No. 2Tribal-State Agreement Benefits Children

When Tribal children are unable to remain with their families, many Tribal child welfare systems are forced to choose between relinquishing the children to State care or retaining oversight but struggling for pay for Tribal foster care. New Federal legislation eventually will allow recognized Tribes to apply for title IV-E funds. In the meantime, a few Tribes have worked out agreements with their State governments that provide financial support to Tribal child welfare systems.

One such example is the formal agreement between the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe and the State of Washington, which provides title IV-E money for Tribal children in foster homes on their reservation. Signed in 2004, the agreement recognizes the Tribe's right to conduct investigations, license foster homes on the reservation, place children, and access Federal monies that support the Tribal foster care system. Children in the system are eligible for all the services that IV-E funds can support, including Independent Living services and Educational and Training vouchers.

Before the agreement, the Tribe used a patchwork of funds and services to keep children on the reservation when their parents were no longer able to care for them. While the 1,100-member Tribe had taken care of their own children since the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, doing so had required drawing on Tribal Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and other types of funds, or just relying on the willingness of relatives. Without access to the title IV-E funds that the State received, the Tribe struggled to pay for foster care on the reservation. Only three families on the reservation were willing to work with the State to provide foster care, and this number was inadequate to provide placements for the 25 to 40 children in need of care. When it became apparent that Tribal TANF funds could be stretched no further and that Tribal children were going without services available to other Washington State residents, the Tribe pursued IV-E funds through the State.

Although the State initially was unwilling to recognize the Tribe's standards for foster care licensing, a meeting with Federal Administration for Children and Families staff at the Regional Office changed that view. Once the Regional staff had approved the Tribe's licensing standards, the State quickly moved to reimburse the Tribe. The agreement has been in effect ever since. According to Marilyn Olson, the Children & Family Administration (CFA) Director for the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe, "We have a great working relationship with the State. They have really risen to the occasion, and we appreciate their support."

Access to title IV-E funds has allowed the Tribe to provide an array of necessary services to help children and families. Of the 42 children currently in foster care, all but one have been placed with families on the reservation, allowing the children to grow up connected with their relatives and culture. The Tribe licenses the foster homes and provides training for foster parents, using a tailored version of the Native American Training Institute's Extending Our Families Through Unity curriculum. Jolene Sullivan, the CFA Deputy Director, notes that, "Most of the 18 foster families on the reservation were recruited personally. Often, a child's family member will suggest a particular family as a resource. Sometimes we recruit a family to provide respite care at first, to let them try it out."

To prevent children from experiencing multiple placements, the CFA hired two therapists. Every child in care spends time with a therapist at least twice a month. This ongoing therapy has helped stabilize the placements and prevented burnout among the relatives providing care to these children. In addition, a staff member was hired to work exclusively with youth ages 12 and older, handling such issues as obtaining a driver's license. Ms. Olson jokingly refers to this service as "saving Grandma." All of the staff members work with other Tribal staff who handle TANF, child support, and other youth issues.

The 2004 agreement between the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe and the State of Washington to provide title IV-E funds for Tribal children has improved outcomes for children by allowing the Tribe to license and reimburse Tribal foster parents and expand their services and staff. Both the State and the Tribe are satisfied with the agreement and the outcomes. "It's just one of the best things we've ever done," concludes Ms. Olson.

For more information, contact Jolene Sullivan at

Many thanks to Marilyn Olson and Jolene Sullivan, who provided the information for this article.