Foster Care Should Respect Heritage

Publication: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Author: Misty Stenslie


05/13/2008 - In Washington today, there are more than 10,000 children in foster care. They will spend an average of two years in care, and nearly half (42 percent) will move three or more times.

According to a report by the National Indian Child Welfare Association and Kids Are Waiting, Washington has one of the nation's highest rates of American Indian foster children. While they make up only 2 percent of Washington's child population, American Indians represent 8.4 percent of children in foster care.

I was one of those American Indian children. I lived in foster care off and on for my entire childhood. I lived in 30 placements in eight different states. I attended dozens of different schools and was separated from my brothers and sisters. As a result, I have very few memories of them. I don't know their birthdays or even their middle names.

As a little girl, I never participated in Girl Scouts, marching band or a school play. I had no opportunity to learn about my Native American heritage. Because I moved so many times, and because I don't "look like an Indian," my cultural heritage and identity were effectively deleted from my file. Being in foster care system is all about your file; if it's not in there, it's not part of your life.

There were a few bright moments in my childhood when I felt like I really belonged, like I had my own people. Those happened during the short periods I lived on the reservation where my family came from.

Here I learned about our connection to one another, to the land and to the universe. I learned the importance of community and shared responsibility. These are values I carry today.

The nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care recognized the unique ability tribal governments have to develop effective solutions for Native American children affected by child abuse and neglect and the need for more direct funding to support tribal child welfare efforts.

But current federal law excludes tribes from receiving direct federal funding. As a result, tribes' struggle to provide services to children and youth in foster, adoptive and guardianship placements are hampered, and vulnerable Native American children suffer as a result.

There is reason to hope for positive change. The bipartisan Tribal Foster Care and Adoption Act of 2007 recognizes the special needs of American Indian and Alaskan Native children in foster care.

The legislation would allow tribes direct access to federal foster care and adoption funds and would create accountability measures to ensure that tribes meet the needs of the children in their care. So far, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell has signed on to the legislation, but we need the rest of Washington's congressional delegation to do so.

I will forever be grateful for the foster families and caregivers I had who sheltered and loved me. But I wish I had been raised in a community where I belonged. I wish that I knew the stories of my people and could see where I fit into that heritage.

Congress needs to act, so that Native American children and families will get the help they need, and those vulnerable children can remain connected to their community and their culture.

Misty Stenslie is deputy director of the Foster Care Alumni of America.

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