LINCOLN — Native American children now account for nearly 1 of every 10 foster children in Nebraska, according to figures released Thursday by the Foster Care Review Office.
That's up from a year ago, when about 1 in 14 children in out-of-home care were identified that way.
And it's several times greater than the roughly 1.5 percent of Nebraska children who are Native American.
“It's very disparate,” said State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln. “If you're a Native kid, it's not getting much better.”
He noted that the state has been reducing the number of children overall who are removed from their families for abuse and neglect.
But the opposite has happened with Native American children in the past year.
Coash sponsored an interim legislative study of issues surrounding the high rate of Native American children in the state's child welfare system.
As part of the study, the Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday heard from tribal representatives, a juvenile judge, a state child welfare official and others.
“We're trying to get to the why, which can help us get to how to address this situation,” Coash said.
Misty Thomas, director of social services for the Santee Sioux Tribe, pointed to the traumas experienced by generations of American Indians as the cause.
“The harsh reality is this is the result of the genocide tactics of the United States government,” she said.
The traumas include the forced removal of children to boarding schools in previous years, said Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.
Reports of physical and sexual abuse were common at those schools, which historians say were established to eradicate Native American culture.
Thomas said the trauma continues when children now are taken from their homes and placed in the child welfare system.
Douglas County Juvenile Judge Doug Johnson said he believes “intentional or unintentional bias” contributes to the high numbers of Native American children in foster care.
He said Nebraska judges and officials need to work harder at complying with the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The act was passed in 1978 to address the high numbers of Native American children who were being removed from their homes and placed with non-Native American families.
The act aims to keep Native American children with their families or at least with other Native American families.
It requires that tribes be given the opportunity to intervene, and potentially take jurisdiction, in child welfare cases involving Native American children.
Thomas spoke on behalf of a coalition created to promote the goal of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Other tribal representatives who spoke also are members of the group.
All said their tribal child welfare efforts struggle with a shortage of funding and staff and have difficulty providing services to help families stay together or reunite.
The tribal child welfare agencies operate under contract with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, with some tribal help in some cases.
Amy Painter, human services director for the Winnebago Tribe, said that tribe has three caseworkers who are handling 61 cases, with children spread across Nebraska and in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.
She said they have no money to provide the kind of support services that children and families need to address problems and be reunited successfully.
“We're just operating the best we can,” she said. “We're always in crisis.”
The Omaha Tribe's funding problems have been exacerbated by a delay in reimbursement from HHS, said Gwen Porter, the tribal secretary. She said payments are in arrears by almost $500,000.
Sherri Eveleth, the Indian Child Welfare Act specialist for HHS, attributed the delays to discrepancies between state records and the tribe's reimbursement request, along with slow document processing by a third party.
She said the state is trying to resolve the problem.
Eveleth said HHS has started working more closely with the tribes over the past year.
The agency helped the Indian Child Welfare Act Coalition win a grant to recruit more Native American foster homes. The agency also is meeting monthly with tribal representatives to collaborate on child welfare issues.
Coash said he believes the state may need more funding to address concerns about Native American foster children. He questioned whether HHS should have more people focused on the issue.
“It just seems to me, with the scope of the problem, Sherri Eveleth may not be enough,” he said.