Each year about 1,500 American Indian children in Minnesota spend time in foster care or other out-of-home-care, often after allegations of neglect or substance abuse by a parent.
In Minnesota, American Indian children are 14 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than white children - the widest such gap in the nation. Officials place 66 percent of the children with relatives or with American Indian foster families.
Even as the total number of Minnesota children in foster care dropped 44 percent in the last decade, the number of American Indian children placed in foster care dropped by only 16 percent.
That worries tribal officials like Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. She said the tribes should be able to determine which of their families need intervention, and what kind.
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"When we do not have the decision making and the authority and the control to determine what is best for them, it has become a major concern," Vizenor said.
Aiming to reduce the break-up of Indian families, the White Earth and the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe have taken over responsibility for child welfare on tribal lands. Now the White Earth, Minnesota's largest tribe, is now preparing to care for its children living hundreds of miles away in Hennepin County.
High poverty among American Indian families makes it more difficult to meet a child's basic needs, but that doesn't completely explain why Indian children are much more likely to be removed from their parents' care.
The tribes have questioned whether racial bias is a factor in such decisions, and they've worked with state officials to develop training for county workers to reduce bias in deciding which cases to investigate. The training also seeks to help outsiders understand the traditional role extended families play in raising Indian children.
Dawn Blanchard, the state's ombudsperson for American Indian Families, said removing American Indian children from their homes is "a daily reality."
Blanchard sorts cases into those she can solve over the phone, and those that require an investigation. She reports wide variation in how well counties follow a federal law designed to keep Indian children with other family members, or to at least place them with an Indian foster family.
Blanchard said the most common complaints she handles are disagreements between county social workers and tribes over where children should go.
"The tribe will say we want them to go to Aunt Betty and the county will say, 'we have problems with Aunt Betty. We think that she's not a good person,' " Blanchard said. "Maybe she's too old. 'We've heard' — that's a big one 'we've heard that she's drinking.' Is it substantiated? Do we know for sure if she has a history of drinking or was it 10 or 15 years ago and she's cleaned up her life now?"
Representatives of Minnesota's 11 tribes were so concerned that the needs of their children were not adequately addressed that late last year they sent letters to then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Gov.-elect Mark Dayton requesting immediate action to address the problem.
White Earth tribal officials want to take on responsibility for the tribe's children in Hennepin County, hundreds of miles south of the reservation. White Earth children make up a quarter of Hennepin County's American Indian caseload, or about 2 percent of the county's overall cases.
Margaret Thunder, a program manager for Hennepin County child protection, is enthusiastic about the tribe's effort.
"I think it's a huge deal," said Thunder, a member of the Red Lake band of Ojibwe. "They will have 100-percent say. Not that they don't already have a fair percent."
Tribes do have a seat at the table in child protection cases.
The 1978 federal Indian Child Welfare Act requires tribes be notified and involved in decision-making for their children. Hennepin County, with its large urban Indian population, has a high volume of these cases. The county gets high marks for complying with the act, and that's one of the reasons White Earth officials believe addressing the needs of the tribe's children there is a next logical step.
Transferring such cases to the tribe would give it complete control over American Indian cases such as a recent one heard in juvenile court.
Four children, ages 4, 2, 1 and one month, were placed in emergency foster care following reports that their parents were abusing drugs and neglecting the children. The parents didn't show up for the court hearing. Their father is a member of the White Earth band and their mother is enrolled in the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin.
"Her current address is technically St. Joseph's hospital where the treatment center was," said Mike Hogan, a courtroom monitor for the Minneapolis American Indian Center. "No one's quite sure where she is, even her attorney."
A Ho-Chunk attorney who joined the hearing by speaker phone said the tribe would prepare a list of relatives who could care for the children. White Earth officials agreed to let the mother's tribe take the lead, but they agreed to compile a list of paternal relatives.
A guardian ad litem said the children were doing well under the care of their foster care families.
Hogan's boss, Sheri Riemers, said the embrace of extended families offers the most hopeful outcome for children in such tough situations.
"We do believe when children are removed that their spirit is left behind," said Riemers, program director of Indian Child Welfare for the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Other tribes around the state and around the country are watching closely.
Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, said she is not aware of another state transferring public child welfare from a state or county to a tribal system. But there are good reasons to do so, said Sutton, the state's point person on child welfare.
"We're thinking that if services can be provided in a cultural context to Indian families and by tribal agencies that there may be more success," she said.
For state and tribal officials success won't mean eliminating out-of-home placements. There will always be children who need to be removed from unsafe situations, but they hope more tribal involvement will reduce the disparate treatment of American Indian children.
Vizenor said the Hennepin County program could be the beginning of an ambitious venture to expand care for children living off the reservation.
"Without a doubt, I know we will be successful and gradually, we will phase in the metro area and eventually all our children in the state of Minnesota," she said.
White Earth and the state will present a report to the legislature in January. The timeline for the Hennepin County transfer, and the costs, are still to be determined.