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Oregon Conference Focuses On Tribal Children

Thursday in Warm Springs, about 200 social workers and child welfare workers are meeting. It's the 13th annual Indian Child Welfare Conference held by the state's Department of Human Services.

Conference attendees say for all the good DHS does, the conference once again highlights the failure of the child welfare system to properly address the problems of Native Americans. But, as central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey reports, there are some reasons for optimism.

Tribal leaders and state social workers say the yearly conference itself is an achievement. Even though Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, Oregon is one of the only states that runs an annual summit on the issue.

Mary McNevins works for the state's Department of Human Services. She says many states have a negative relationship with local tribes, not so with Oregon.

She says she's one of only a few full-time state directors of Indian Child Welfare in the country.

Mary McNevins: “Oregon is in the forefront. My position is an example and the relationships with the tribes in Oregon is very, very strong, with the state agencies. They will come and have negotiations instead of taking their ball and going home and not wanting to play anymore.”

Before 1978, Native American kids were six times more likely to be placed in foster care than other children. In Oregon, that rate was even higher. So Congress passed a law that gave tribes the authority to manage their own foster care.

Today, Native Americans make up 12 percent of the 16,000 foster kids in Oregon. Only 1.3 percent of the state's youth are Native American. So the disproportionately high rate clearly remains a problem.

Add to that the fact that the act has come under major criticism because it gives preference to Native American families when adopting native children. Lawmakers say the child welfare system is supposed to, for the most part, be color-blind.

Heather Crow-Martinez: “Hi, I'm Heather Crow-Martinez and I was part of a panel of people who shared their experience with the foster care or child welfare system was like. So I shared my story as a native American person who was adopted immediately at birth by non-native people before the Indian Child Welfare Act. We were kind of on the path to extinction, you might say.”

Heather Crow-Martinez was adopted before the act was passed in 1978. She says she doesn't regret being raised by a white family.

But then she says she thinks about the history of Native Americans in this country. And she says that's reason enough for government to encourage native families to stay together.

A Government Accountability study released in 2005 exposed many problems with implementating the Indian Child Welfare Act.

For one thing, states don't keep proper records of Native American foster care. And, worst of all the report says, oversight was split between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kathy Deserlee was one of the featured speakers at the conference. She is a national consultant on the issue.

Kathy Deserlee: “There are a lot of problems recruiting native foster families. Families don't always trust the system, and that is just something that has never gone away.”

She says sometimes the problems can seem insurmountable - and they aren't getting any easier.

The conference was held at the Kahneeta Indian Head casino - owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Standing in the lobby of the casino resort, Mary McNevins with the Oregon DHS says when federal tribal funding was cut in the 1980s, tribes faced a financial crisis.

Mary McNevins: “For the tribes in Oregon that do have casinos its been a basis for them to try and rebuild or build their infrastructure.”

Tribal gambling in the western United States collects $4.8 billion a year. But studies have also shown it has increased compulsive gambling problems on reservations.

And, as one conference participant said, addictions go hand in hand with social welfare concerns.

Reservations already face higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse — and they're not going away either. The rate of meth use in many rural parts of the state, including on tribal reservations, remains especially high.

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