A report by the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) has found that additional improvements in data collection and collaboration between courts and public agencies are required to better meet the unique needs of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) children in court dependency cases. The study also found that AI/AN children and their families need more effective representation in court and that courts need to exercise greater oversight to achieve these goals.
The report, Court Reform and American Indian/Alaska Native Children: Increasing Protections and Improving Outcomes, was officially released at the NCJFCJ annual conference, held July 1215 in Chicago.
Partially funded by OJJDP through the Model Dependency Courts Initiative, the report provides a preliminary examination of recommendations made in a 2004 study by the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, focusing on State and tribal court involvement in Indian child welfare matters and opportunities for enhancing court systems for the betterment of AI/AN children.
In its study, entitled "Fostering the Future: Safety, Permanence and Well-Being for Children in Foster Care," the Pew Commission outlined four areas in which substantial court improvement was required: data collection, training and collaboration, improving legal representation, and court operation. The Commission's recommendations have garnered considerable attention and ensuing action on the part of government leaders, State juvenile dependency courts, and child welfare agency personnel and tribes. The recommendations have proven vital to court reform and improving outcomes for AI/AN children.
The new NICWANCJFCJ report offers additional recommendations to strengthen the foster care system's response to the needs of AI/AN children. It provides an overview of some of the challenges and promising practices gleaned from tribal-State collaborations in the four areas of court improvement outlined by the Pew Commission. The report emphasizes that AI/AN children have a unique political status as citizens of sovereign nations, and that these nations are inherently best equipped to identify, understand, and respond to their needs. Specifically, the report explains that most dependency cases of AI/AN children are referred to State courts because tribal courts have significantly less access to Federal funds than do States, and therefore cannot provide the same level of services. However, State courts usually lack knowledge about tribal culture and a familiarity with the Indian Child Welfare Act to address AI/AN child welfare needs.
The report concludes that, although tribal-State partnerships have yielded many positive developments in some of the above referenced areas, much remains to be done to improve outcomes for AI/AN children and families involved in juvenile dependency proceedings. The supplemental recommendations detailed in the report build on those of the Pew Commission and apply specifically to the needs of AI/AN children.
These recommendations include focusing additional attention on processes that support improved outcomes for AI/AN children in the State foster care system; making additional Federal funding (comparable to that of State Court Improvement Program grants) available to tribes so that they can establish and further develop their capacity to hear AI/AN child welfare cases; and collaboratively developing culturally tailored training and technical assistance and making this assistance available to State courts, child welfare agencies, and tribes to improve outcomes for AI/AN children.
OJJDP's support of the report is only one example of the Office's comprehensive commitment to ensuring a safer, healthier future for AI/AN children. OJJDP administers the Tribal Youth Program, which supports tribal efforts to prevent and control delinquency and improve tribal juvenile justice systems for AI/AN youth. Since fiscal year 1999, OJJDP has awarded 321 grants to 299 federally-recognized tribes to help them develop and implement culturally sensitive programs, interventions for court-involved tribal youth, improvements to the tribal juvenile justice system, alcohol and drug abuse prevention programs, and mental health program services. See the article "TYP Grant Provides American Indian Youth Glimpse of State Legislature" for a description of how a recent TYP grant has made a difference in the lives of tribal youth in Oregon.