FAIRBANKS—Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signed a compact with Alaska tribes and tribal organizations Thursday that recognizes the authority of tribes to provide child welfare programs and services on behalf of the Alaska Office of Children’s Services.

Walker signed the compact at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage.

"Supporting Alaskan families is crucial to building a safer Alaska," he said.

Walker said the agreement will eventually help reduce the number of Alaska Native children in foster care.

While 19 percent of Alaska children are Native or American Indian, 55 percent of Alaska children in out-of-home foster care are of Native descent, and 61 percent of Alaska Native children in foster care will ultimately be placed in non-Native homes.

"My administration is committed to reducing the disproportionate number of Alaska Native children in our foster care system," Walker said.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, an Alaska Native of Tlingit heritage, said the agreement was an important move for the state.

"Our children are our greatest resource and will help guarantee a bright future for our state," he said. "Alaska Native children steeped in the love, values, and culture of their tribe have the best chance of being healthy, engaged members of society. This compact builds a strong relationship between the state and tribes that will ultimately benefit all Alaskans.”

The compact acknowledges the government-to-government relationship between the state and tribes and clearly identifies child welfare services for tribes and tribal organizations to carry out within a defined jurisdiction or service area.

State representatives from smaller villages and communities have spoken in support of the agreement.

"This new compact recognizes that tribes have the responsibility to care for their people, and it allows them to take over or assist in the delivery of essential services and programs to protect our children," House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said. "What we witnessed today was just another step forward in the growing fruitful relationship between the state of Alaska and the First People of Alaska."

Rep. Zach Fansler, a Democrat from Bethel, shared this support.

"This is a historic day. Tribes have always been ground zero when it comes to public safety and the well-being of our children," Fansler said. "Tribes and tribal organizations are vital to the fabric of Alaska and they can help open additional help and funding sources. This compact will create greater opportunities for tribes to do things better and more efficiently than the state government, which is currently hampered by a fiscal crisis and budget cuts that leave too many children in danger."

Rep. Dean Westlake, a Democrat from Kiana, said this compact was a big win for tribal organizations.

"For generations the tribes in Alaska have been lobbying the state to recognize that they have the ability and the moral authority to take care of endangered children in their villages and communities," Westlake said. "This historic compact is just the kind of recognition we have been looking for. I believe this compact will improve the lives of children. That is a wonderful achievement that should be celebrated."

Walker also identified the signing as a historic moment for Alaska.

"This compact is the first of its kind for both Alaska and the United States," he said. "Every day, Alaska’s tribes and tribal organizations provide essential services to children and families. This compact builds on that great experience, and incorporates their values, culture, and traditions into our child services system."

Contact staff writer Erin Granger at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.