In Washington state, tribal children are more likely than most other states to end up in state foster care, according to a report released last month by the National Indian Child Welfare Association. They make up 8.4 percent of all children in the state foster care system, even though they number only 2 percent of the total child population. The state ranks sixth in the nation for the largest number of Indian children in foster care and is among the top 10 states with the greatest disproportionality of Indian children in foster care.
Only four of the state's 26 tribes have an agreement with the state that funnels federal foster support dollars to the tribes, said Connie Bear King, a government affairs associate with Northwest Indian Child Welfare Association. None are in Snohomish County.
"If tribes are able to access the dollars directly, they'll be given the ability to provide better services, and that would increase the possibility of native foster and adoptive families," Bear King said.
Without the money, Bear King said, Indian children are more likely to end up in white homes, where they often struggle to fit in.
"They are often told explicitly that they are different, and it creates a conflict for them in terms of their identity," Bear King said.
That's when Indian children often face deep trauma, said Lisa Powers, an Everett-based foster licenser for the state Department of Social and Health Services. Powers is a Comanche Indian, and her children are Tulalip.
Indian children placed in white homes are known as "split feathers," Powers said.
"They've been taken out of their community, and they don't really know who they are," she said. "It's very traumatizing for these people. They get into substance abuse, and even suicide as an end result."
The fear many tribal members feel toward non-Indians who care for tribal children is rooted in an era during which as many as half of the tribal children were taken, either by government officials or church leaders.
"There was a true effort to 'save' native children and place them in a white home," Powers said.
Though some children who were taken were rescued from abuse, many were removed because it was believed that Indian homes were too poor to care for them, Powers said.
In 1978, the federal government passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gave tribal leaders a say in custody matters for reservation children. Now, local advisory committees ensure that state agencies don't remove tribal children from homes without adequate evidence of neglect or abuse, Powers said.
"They're no longer removed because the housing isn't fancy," Powers said.
But even today, for Indian children in abusive families, often the only option is to leave the reservation.
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