Tribe substantially reduces number of youths in foster care

05.29.2014 Dean Rhodes Culture, Health & Wellness, Tribal employees

Over the last five years, the Grand Ronde Tribe has seen the number of Tribal children in foster care drop by more than 50 percent, from 100 in 2009 to 47 in 2013.

The success has come mainly by preventing new children and families from entering the foster care system, said Dana Ainam-Leno, supervisor of the Tribe's Children and Family Services Division in the Social Services Department.

The decrease comes "by being proactive, by making connections with families and by giving them the support they need," she said.

Instead of crisis management, prevention services are currently favored nationally across the social services profession, Ainam-Leno said.

Last year, Children and Family Services received 255 reports of possible abuse and 44 of those were referred to the investigative arm of the division.

"Most of the reports do not rise to the level of abuse or neglect required by the Children and Families Ordinance," said Ainam-Leno, "and for others, there was not enough information to go forward."

In a typical year, Children and Family Services serves about 30 families through prevention services, but not many progress to the courts. With the prevention model, Tribal Court did not review a new petition involving abuse or neglect in 2013, Ainam-Leno said.

State social services departments and courts serve those who are not and cannot be enrolled in the Tribe. The state also may take Tribal member cases where the location of the family's home makes it difficult for the Tribe to serve them.

It may be that the Tribe, for any number of reasons, is not the best agency to provide for a family's needs, she added.

The state system takes Tribal and non-Tribal families; the Tribal foster care system only serves Tribal children and families.

Tribal members are all over, said Ainam-Leno, and services can best be provided locally.

"There are many cases where the Tribe chooses to allow the state social services departments and courts to serve Tribal families. These decisions are made based on the location of the family, level of services needed, whether there are non-Tribal siblings in the home and the connection of the family to the Tribe and community."

 When the state takes over a case, the Tribe stays involved by filing a motion to intervene. The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act requires that all state social services units notify Tribes when their members are being served.

The right to legal intervention allows Tribal Children and Family Services to seek return of the Tribal family to Tribal programs, though the family also has a say, Ainam-Leno said.

Prevention services are not limited by time, but by a family's ability to reach their goals. "Many times," she said, "we supply support services for six months to a year."

Children and Family Services keeps up with the people it serves. "In the community and at Tribal events, we have definitely continued these relationships. We see folks at many Tribal events," she said.

With the prevention model, Tribal expenditures are larger at the front end, but with less foster care, fewer court cases, better contracted programs and reduced staff time, the model is saving at the back end.

"Without new funds, we are able to allocate funds differently," said Ainam-Leno.

A March program assessment through the National Resource Center for Tribes, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that the Tribe's division has a committed staff, places value in the work it does in the community, and has a lot of strengths with a quality program that does a better job of engaging families and meeting their needs.

The assessment also said that the division could still do a better job of helping families understand the process.

"They wanted to know that families feel the time spent on their family dynamics is worthwhile, that they have a voice in the process and that their opinions are valued," she said.

When resistance comes from families, it reflects the reality that so much is at stake, said Ainam-Leno.

The week-long review included focus groups attended by Elders, current and former families involved with the program, community partners and the state Department of Human Services.

The goal was "to build on the things we do well and improve the areas where we struggle," said Ainam-Leno.

Among Elders, the feeling was that the program needed to rebuild the sense of community that they remember from the early days of the Tribe. Even though poverty plagued the community, there was a time, Elders said, when all worked together. People feel more disconnected from the community now, they observed.

Many are, however, excited about coming phases of the prevention effort.