Monday, June 25, 2007

State sees model in Indian-county alliance on foster care
DeArmond, Michelle. Press-Enterprise, June 22, 2007.

State and local officials said Friday that an alliance of Inland tribes and Riverside County agencies is a pioneer in the state's efforts to protect Indian foster children.

Inland tribal and local government leaders created the partnership two years ago to help keep Indian children with their tribes, even if not in their parents' homes. Now, a state commission is looking to Riverside County for ideas on how to help the more than 1,000 American Indian children in California's custody.

"This county is kind of on the leading edge," said Luke Madrigal, an alliance member and a member of the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians near Anza.

Members of the alliance addressed the state commission Friday. The state Blue Ribbon Commission on Foster Care is charged with recommending better ways to care for California foster children and their families.

Members of the alliance, known as the Riverside County Tribal Alliance for Indian Children and Families, said they've made huge strides in improving communication between tribes and county governments and navigating culture clashes.

"It took the whole first year to develop trust," Riverside County Superior Court Judge Elisabeth Sichel said.

Sichel, a member of the alliance, said Friday that there is a history of nontribal governments lying to or neglecting their obligations to tribes.

Prior to the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, many Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes and became disconnected from their tribe and culture. The child-welfare act requires officials to try to place Indian children in foster or family homes within their tribes.

The act also requires government officials to notify a tribe if a child from that tribe is in the government's custody. The notification often didn't happen or didn't happen in a timely fashion, members said.

"Frankly, we were terrible with it," Sichel said at the three-day commission meeting at the Mission Inn in downtown Riverside. "We didn't even know who to contact at the tribes if we remembered to call."

Now the court system is building a Web site with information on how to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act and who to contact at each tribe, she said. Not all reservations have Internet capabilities to access the site themselves, she said, but the alliance has tried to reach out and build relationships throughout the area.

After a series of meetings throughout the county, which is dotted with 10 reservations, Sichel said the group is getting things done.

Mary Ellen Johnson of the Riverside Department of Public Social Services said her agency has started rolling out a new system that should help keep tribal governments informed about their members.

As of last week, tribes get phone calls letting them know if one of their children is in Riverside County's southwest court and that a tribal representative can participate in the proceedings.
The same practice soon will start in the county's court in Indio and then the one in Riverside, she said.

State Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno, chairman of the 42-member commission, said the kinds of systems that Riverside County is implementing are key to helping foster children receive consistent, proper care.

"We think that Riverside (County) is a leader in collaborating among the courts and agencies," he said.

The commission was appointed in 2006 by state Chief Justice Ronald M. George. The group's recommendations are due in spring 2008.