Improved communication among tribes and Child Protective Services
In the first issue brought before the STRC, representatives from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) and the Yellowstone County District Indian Child Welfare Act court spoke about challenges within and ways to improve Indigenous child welfare services.
Marti Vining, Children and Family Services Division (CFS) administrator for DPHHS, advocated for open and consistent communication between the state and tribes in child neglect cases.
“When the burden of addiction and violence and abuse becomes too hard for our families to carry for themselves, … families (must) know there is a system waiting for them, wanting them to succeed,” she said.In an effort to improve relationships among the state and tribes, Vining said the CFS implemented a series of tribal consultation meetings, where representatives from CFS develop relationships with and receive feedback from members of tribal nations
Though Native Americans only make up about 7 percent of Montana’s population, Vining reported that as of Sept. 30, Indigenous children made up 30 percent of children in foster care in Montana.
Lesa Evers, tribal relations manager for DPHHS, urged the importance of keeping Indigenous children in the welfare system connected to family and culture. But Vining and Evers both cited the high staff turnover rate and limited housing options as challenges in these cases.
Representatives from the Yellowstone County District Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) court also spoke about child neglect cases.
“The concept of an ICWA court is simple,” said Judge Rod Souza of the 13th Judicial District Court. “It’s about relationships. We seek to improve relationships with our tribal partners. Improved relationships lead to better communication, which leads to collaboration, which leads to better outcomes for children.”
Souza and other ICWA court representatives spoke about the importance of family involvement, advocating that families be involved in their children’s cases from the beginning.
“Our goal is to make sure kids are connected to their extended family when not able to be safely reunited with their immediate family back home,” said Brooke Baracker-Taylor, an assistant attorney general.
Montana is one of a few states that does not require a hearing for parents within 48 or 72 hours of their child being taken into the system. As a result, families in Montana may wait up to 20 days to see a judge.
“Due to our own volume (of cases) and our schedules, I’m not sure we could accommodate the 72-hour hearing,” Souza said.
Dana Eaglefeathers, councilman for the Northern Cheyenne Nation, who addressed the Committee as a member of the public, warned legislators of abuse in foster care.
“I’ve been really concerned about our Indian children and our child services,” he said. “We need to make a bridge, so we can bring our Native kids home.”
Committee members and members of the public asked many questions of the ICWA and DPHHS representatives, including where to access more information, how tribes can get into ICWA court and which cases fall under state, county and tribal jurisdiction.
Due to the large amount of questions from the Committee and members of the public, STRC Chairman and State Senator Jason Small (R-Busby) said the Committee will keep track of the questions and find answers.