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Historic agreement opens up federal funds for tribal foster care

Suzanna Caldwell
Gov. Sean Parnell speaking during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October. He and Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner William Steur are credited with pushing to get a tribal foster care agreement between the state of Alaska and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. Loren Holmes photo

Tribes in Interior Alaska are finally getting access to federal funds to supplement the cost of children living in foster care, more than two decades after the plan was first suggested.

The state of Alaska and the Tanana Chiefs Conference have entered into an agreement that recognizes the ability of the tribal organization to provide services to its own citizens when it comes to foster care, a first for the state.

Tanana Chiefs Conference and its associated 37 tribes will now have access to federal Title IV-E funds to help pay some costs associated with housing children in tribal-licensed foster homes homes. That means an additional $300,000 to $400,000 annually in federal reimbursements within the next three to five years, according to Don Shircel, director of client development for TCC. He said that's money that can now be freed up to help better develop other TCC child-welfare programs.

That's important in Alaska, where 60 percent of all children in foster care are Alaska Native. Each year, the state conducts a campaign encouraging families to consider foster care, specifically Alaska Native families. Of the 1,226 state licensed foster homes, 301 are Alaska Native.

Kristie Swanson, Title IV-E program coordinator with the state Office of Children's Services, said there's hope that by opening up these funds to tribes, more culturally appropriate homes for Alaska Native children will open up and the number of Alaska Native children in state foster care will be reduced.

“It's historic,” Shircel said. “It's really come full circle in the state's strategic plan.”

More complicated than Medicaid

In Alaska, access to Title IV-E funds, a component of the Social Security Act, is nothing new. The state has received these funds -- which pay for everything from foster care training to maintenance and administrative assistance -- for decades. Currently, 11 tribes in Alaska receive about $1 million a year to help with administrative costs under the program, but maintenance funds -- which help pay for food, clothing and other costs associated with housing foster children -- have never been available to tribes, despite first being suggested in a strategic plan in 1990 under what was then the Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services, now the Office of Children's Services.

Shircel said it took five governors, six commissioners and seven OCS directors to finally get the funding to open up. Over the years, there has been limited interest from various state administrations -- some that didn't make working tribes a priority and others that said it just couldn't be done.

“Which is an interesting point because (Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner William) Steur and the (Alaska Gov. Sean) Parnell administration found a way to make it happen and regulators change,” Shircel said Tuesday. “Where there is a will there's a way.”

Swanson praised Commissioner Steur for pushing the change through this time. She said the state has been working for the last year and a half to coordinate the plan. Although the state is working with other tribal leaders across Alaska, TCC will be the “pilot” program.

Swanson said Title IV-E comprises some of the most complicated federal funding sources out there, more complicated than even Medicaid. Both the state and TCC worked to make sure funding criteria were met. Swanson said in many cases, it was just a matter of making sure everything lined up and coming up with an “agreement to enhance to their processes.”

Rep. Les Gara, (D-Anchorage) was pleased to see the agreement reached but expressed frustration over how long it took.

“It's not a good history, it's a bad history,” Gara said.

Gara, a longtime advocate for foster children in Alaska, said to an extent the decision to marks cooperation between the Native community and the state, a reversal since the Millennium agreement -- a project implemented under Gov. Tony Knowles to promote cooperation between Alaska and tribal governments. That agreement was shelved in 2004 under Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration.

“There has been growing anger in the Alaska Native (foster care) community over how left out they are,” Gara said. “... This is a truce in the hostility between states and Alaska Native tribes.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell

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