Change in tribal child custody laws proposed
BY JARREL WADE World Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2012
11/26/12 at 7:40 AM
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Dawn Ferrill, a former Oklahoma foster parent, is no stranger to falling in love with a child in her care and then having to let that child go.
It's the nature of being a foster parent.
But Ferrill said two siblings in her care - a 6-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy - faced further trauma when they were moved from her home three months after they arrived.
After being removed from their natural home and placed with Ferrill, the children were then moved to a tribal foster-care program, she said. The move was in accordance with state and federal law allowing tribes to assume jurisdiction over children with tribal heritage, Ferrill said.
The intent of the law is to protect tribal sovereignty, allowing tribes to care for their own children rather than entrusting them to the state, DHS officials said.
"The law is fine, but it needs some updated amendments to make it good," Ferrill said. "Change it in such a way that children are not being harmed and that their best interests are higher than the tribes' best interests."
Ferrill said the two children she cared for were placed in a home that was not an improvement over hers and that uprooting them again was harmful.
Currently, DHS monitors 128 children across the state in tribal custody. Additionally, 1,478 children in DHS custody are eligible for tribal custody, according to information provided by Rita Hart, state tribal coordinator for DHS.
The Oklahoma Indian Child Welfare Act and the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act give rights to tribes to intervene and assume jurisdiction of children in the state's care, Hart said.
In Oklahoma, 37 tribes and tribal entities have a foster-care system and work through DHS policies to be reimbursed for care, Hart said.
DHS is currently working to improve collaboration with Oklahoma tribes as part of the state agency's Pinnacle Plan, a child-welfare improvement plan. The plan was implemented as part of a settlement following a federal lawsuit over the state's foster care system.
In working with tribes, Hart's office has a "collaboration work group" that meets every three months to discuss better collaboration between DHS and the tribes.
The work group was established as one of seven objectives in the agency's Pinnacle Plan.
It is the state's responsibility when taking custody of a child to notify tribes if a child has tribal heritage, Hart said.
"Once we take custody of a child we are mandated to report to the tribe," Hart said. "The court system is also required to send a notice to the tribe."
However, sometimes it isn't immediately known or possible to know that a child has Indian heritage, she said.
In accordance with the law, the child doesn't have to be enrolled in a tribe for the tribe to assume jurisdiction.
Heritage can be established through one of the parents, making the process sometimes more complicated, Hart said.
"It could be that a case is a year old, and then we find that the child" has tribal heritage, she said. "And it could be, too, that we weren't able to prove it."
Typically, parents inform DHS whether or not their child has a tribal connection and the tribe is notified, Hart said.
To combat the problem of DHS sometimes not being able to immediately identify a child as belonging to a tribe, Ferrill said she believes the federal law should be amended.
She is circulating a petition that she said she will deliver to Oklahoma's congressional offices. The petition asks the state's delegation to bar tribes from jurisdiction after a child has been in a home for a certain period of time.
Ferrill said she has not taken in any more children since losing the two in July so she could focus on getting legislation proposed that would amend the law.
"It's hard enough being moved away from your family, but then you get settled in with a new family and you bond and then you have to go again to another stranger's home," Ferrill said. "The kids were moved and it was very traumatic."
Tribal foster care by the numbers
1,478: Number of children in Department of Human Services' custody eligible for tribal custody.
128: Children statewide in tribal custody being monitored by DHS.
37: Number of tribes in Oklahoma with a foster care system that enables DHS reimbursement for care.
Source: Oklahoma Department of Human Services
Jarrel Wade 918-581-8367