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OCS: Few Alaska Native foster homes for Native children in need

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Posted: Sunday, August 4, 2013 12:00 am

FAIRBANKS — There has been growing concern in the Native community in recent years about the high number of Alaska Native children in foster care and the need to recruit more Native foster parents.

The Alaska Office of Children’s Services reports that more than 1,200 of the 2,000 children who need foster homes in Alaska are Alaska Native. Fairbanks has 103 licensed foster homes but only 30 of those are Native foster homes.

A recently released public service announcement video created by the state office is called “Become a Foster Parent!” The video, available on YouTube, depicts an older Yupik woman teaching a Yupik girl how to dance. The girl then disappears and the ad says, “Traditions could be lost.”

The video sets the tone for the campaign and has received awards. It runs regularly on television.

An OCS table quantifying out-of-home placements shows that Alaska Natives tower above all other groups in numbers of cases.

Christy Lawton, the Alaska director of the Office of Children’s Services for the past 14 years, said in an email response to questions that partnering with Alaska Native tribes is critical to the welfare of Native children in Alaska.

“Our goal is to partner with tribes as much as possible so they can leverage resources and serve children within their own child welfare programs, preventing the need for state involvement … or reducing our involvement at the least,” she said.

Lawton wrote a lengthy and passionate piece in the June 2012 OCS newsletter about the efforts to reduce the disproportionate number of Native children in foster care. She cited the work of the Tribal-State Collaboration Group that meets three times annually.

“Alaska Native children comprise only roughly 25 percent of the state’s population but comprise 60 percent of the population of children being served in foster care,” she wrote. “This is an unacceptable number.”  

Karilee Pietz, OCS’ social service program officer, licenses foster homes and assists them in complying with requirements. She works with two specialists, who help get people licensed as foster parents.

“We work to get kids back with parents,” Pietz explains. “When children have to be taken out of their homes, it’s not good for anyone.”

The Indian Child Welfare Act, passed by Congress in 1978, requires the state to make active efforts of behalf of Native American children. The act was passed in response to the high number of American Indian children being removed from their homes by public and private agencies, according to OCS’ information brochure. The act requires the state to pursue two priorities:

• Provide services to the family to prevent removal of an Native American child from his or her parent or Indian custodian.

• Reunify a Native American child with his or her parent or Native American custodian after removal.

The act also reaffirmed the jurisdiction of tribal courts in Native child welfare matters, but the extent of that authority has been the subject of court cases in recent years.

Salina and Hudson Sam, an older married couple in Huslia, have done their best to fill the need for Native foster parents by raising as many Native children as possible. 

For years, the couple ran a boarding house to take in Native children coming into the town for an inter-village exchange program. They are licensed foster parents under the state and Kaltag’s tribal court. 

In addition, Salina Sam took a dispute with the state to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and won in 2009, validating the tribe’s authority in the adoption of one of her Native children, Natalie. The state appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it declined to consider it in 2010.

The Sams won’t be taking in more children, though.

“We’ve raised eight foster children and plan on retiring now. We adopted a kid from Noorvik, and we hope it’s our last,” Salina said with a laugh. “We need people to sign up to be foster parents other than us.”

Matthew Gilbert is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks.

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