‘Historic day’ as state partners with Tribes to provide child services

  • As Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott looks on, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker talks with Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson on Oct. 19 in Anchorage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention after signing an agreement to allow Tribes to provide child welfare services. (Photo/Courtesy/Office of Gov. Bill Walker)

Alaska could save millions of dollars by transferring services through a “historic compact” signed by Gov. Bill Walker and tribes to provide child welfare services.

The new compact recognizes the authority of Alaska Tribes to provide services previously only delivered through the Office of Children’s Services. Lauded as the first of its kind in the U.S., it was signed at the 51st annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention Oct. 19.

Walker used his AFN address to make the announcement, which was greeted with thundering applause from the delegates representing Alaska Native regional and village corporations.

Under the compact, Alaska Tribes and Tribal organizations will provide identified child welfare services that would be otherwise provided by the Alaska Office of Children’s Services. This includes intake, screening and investigating abuse or neglect cases. It includes searching for relatives of children brought into the system, developing and managing safety and case plans; foster care licensing and support; supervised visitation and transportation, adoption and guardianship home studies.

The agreement came about after eight months of “intense negotiations” between the Department of Health and Social Services, headed up by Commissioner Valerie Davidson, and 18 tribes.

The tribes included those from Kodiak, Mentasta, Eyak, Kawerak, Kotzebue, Nome, the Aleutians, Cook Inlet Tribal Council, St. Paul, Bristol Bay and the Arctic.

Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes that was one of the primary groups negotiating with the state, called the compact “every bit as historic as the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act.”

“It recognizes government-to-government tribal sovereignty,” Peterson told the delegates at the convention after the governor’s announcement.

The term “sovereignty” carries a legal meaning that mostly pitted state officials against Tribal leaders in the past, Peterson said. Alaska governors have sued Tribes under circumstances when state rights were seen as paramount, such as the long-running subsistence disputes.

Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot have embraced handing over more power to Tribes, or acknowledging them in government-to-government ways, he said.

Walker emphasized fixing a problem experienced by Alaska Native families and children.

“My administration is committed to reducing the disproportionate number of Alaska Native children in our foster care system,” Walker said. “This compact is the first of its kind for both Alaska and the United States. I thank the Department of Health and Social Services, Department of Law, and Alaska Tribes and Tribal organizations for crafting this unique new partnership.”

Alaska Native children have been disproportionately represented in the state’s foster care system for decades. While only 19 percent of Alaska children are Native or American Indian, 55 percent of Alaska children in out-of-home foster care are of Native descent, and 61 percent of Alaska Native children in foster care will ultimately be placed in non-Native homes.

Meanwhile, in the crunch of Alaska’s fiscal crisis, OCS has come under fire in several lawsuits for harm brought to children while under its care. The state has consistently blamed a lack of funding to hire more caseworkers as part of the problem. Christy Lawton, director of OCS, attended the convention during the governor’s announcement.

“Despite our agency’s dedicated work and efforts we haven’t been able to turn the curve for Alaska Native children with a different outcome,” Lawton said.

She believes the move — which goes into effect in early 2018 — will refocus help on more than half of OCS’s caseload.

The recommended national standard is 12 cases per child services worker. Alaska OCS workers carry between 16 and 50 cases per worker. At a time when the state is running deficits of more than $2 billion per year, increases to hire more workers were minimal in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

“This lack of resources, combined with unprecedented fiscal and social challenges facing our state, has led to high worker turnover at Alaska OCS offices,” Walker said.

State savings will come from a switch to more federal grant availability that already helps pay for some Tribal children welfare services. It will create more training and job opportunities for Tribal administrations.

Yet, so far, more detailed financials of the compact aren’t known, Lawton said. DHSS’s budget for 2017 was $151 million.

“Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact is budget neutral and there are no plans to ask for an increase in funding because of the signing of the compact,” Lawton wrote in an email to the Journal. “There is not a dollar estimate for how much money will/could be saved by the Department of Health and Social Services and more specifically the Office of Children’s Services. We have no way to tell how much money would be saved until we see who is interested in taking over what roles and more time passes.

“This compact provides a more local approach for child welfare services, potentially faster responses, and helps to alleviate high caseloads in other parts of the state. It will also serve children and parents in their home communities, helping them to maintain their cultures and traditions.”

How that will work out remains to be seen. But Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, called Oct. 19 “a historic day” when it comes to new public safety arrangements that can be made with Tribes.

“This new compact recognizes that Tribes have a responsibility to care for their people and it allows them to take over or assist in the delivery of essential services and programs,” he said.

“Tribes have always been at ground zero when it comes to public safety and the well being of our children,” said Bush Caucus co-chair Rep. Zach Fansler, D-Bethel. “This compact will create greater opportunities for tribes to do things better and more efficiently than the state government, which is currently hampered by a fiscal crisis and budget cuts that leave too many children in danger.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

10/25/2017 - 10:03am