A Lesson to Be Learned

In the 50s and 60s this was typified by the "Adoption Project," which forced thousands of Washington State children into white homes in a mad dash to assimilate.
05/10/2010 01:29pm ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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How conventional Child Welfare starts looking more and more like what native tribes did for their vulnerable children all along.

Jolene Sullivan walks down to the water on the S'Klallam side of Port Gamble Bay. The shoreline is littered with oyster and clam shells cultivated over time immemorable. On a low spit of land, 30-year-old Sullivan, the soon to be director of the Department of Children and Families for the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe, points out pilings, the remnants of a huddle of homes.

"The government burned these houses down," she explains. The conflagration took place a century before, during a TB outbreak. "Just another form of genocide."

Fires weren't the only way the government sought to obliterate tribes' cultural fiber. In the 50s and 60s this was typified by the "Adoption Project," which forced thousands of Washington State's Indian children into white homes in a mad dash to assimilate.

But today conventional foster care could learn a thing or two from how Indians take care of their abused and neglected children, and Jolene Sullivan and her tribe are well positioned to become a vanguard of not only Indian child welfare but the re-injection of family into the system as a whole.

In 2008, the sweeping Fostering Connections to Success and Increased Adoptions Act included a provision that offered federal dollars directly to tribes to administer their own Title IV-E Foster Care Programs. For the 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington State accessing the federal dollars is still far from a tangible reality. To get the money tribes need the infrastructure of a fully functional child welfare administration, but without the money they are hard pressed to build that infrastructure.

The first tribe in the nation to submit an application for the funds is the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe. The S'Klallam's ability to submit the application so far ahead of any other tribe is a reflection of their sense of community-as-family and the importance of keeping kids within the tribe.

"We don't let our babies go anywhere," says Marilyn Olsen, the current director of the Department of Children and Families on the reservation.

The S'Klallams were so intent on ensuring that they ran their own administration that they fought hard and struck a deal with Washington's Children's Administration in 2005, allowing the tribe to license its own foster families.

While the tribe set more stringent standards on drug abuse with prospective foster parents, it did away with the state's arcane measures of square footage and requirements on the numbers of children that could share a room. Further, the agreement took state workers out of investigations and resulted in a jump from three licensed families on the reservation to 20 in the first year after the agreement was reached.

"When I get near the reservation I just feel relaxed," says 60-year-old Georgia Makris who had been informally fostering her granddaughter for years in California. When she moved back to the reservation some years back, it didn't take her long to get licensed as a foster parent and start receiving the funds crucial in her retirement. "I didn't trust children's services [off the reservation]," she explains. But on the small reservation where the 700 residents form one big extended family, it was no longer an issue.

There would be no tape measures and no outsiders telling her what she needed to do to care for her own blood, something that she understood intuitively.

It is that intuition, and the idea that a loving home is more important than one that fills certain stipulations that is now being reflected in federal law. Along with extending tribes the possibility of full sovereignty over their children in Fostering Connections, the law also allowed for loosened licensing standards.

Under the new law, relative guardians who receive foster care payments can have certain non-safety standards waived. This is predicated on that same love quotient.

"The biggest message to the Children's Administration is that tribes are a resource," Sullivan says in Makris' home.

Now even federal law is reflective of what tribes have known all along, that to get it right by kids takes a village, or in some cases a reservation.