Efforts continue to focus on reducing disproportionality
By Christy Lawton
Over the past 14 years I’ve been privileged to serve Alaskans through my work at OCS. I’ve been witness to as many tragedies as I have successes. It is work that never leaves you lacking an emotion, and a day never passes when you feel as if time is passing slowly.
One area of our work that has benefitted from the satisfaction of success — and struggled with very real challenges — is that of our Tribal-State Collaboration Group (TSCG), which meets without fail three times annually. There are many reasons why the work of this collaborative body is so important and much history stems from its creation 18 years ago. But, the primary reasons so many Tribal representatives and OCS staff keep coming back to the table again and again are solely focused on our mutual goal to reduce disproportionality of Alaska Native children in the child welfare system.
Alaska Native children comprise only roughly 25 percent of the state’s population, but comprise 60 percent of the population of children being served in foster care. This is an unacceptable number and one that we struggle to fully understand. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 was created to address many of the issues surrounding our country’s history of treatment of Alaska Native/American Indian people. But sadly, the reality of today is much the same as when the federal law was created.
Within OCS, we have been focused for a number of years on ensuring that we monitor, evaluate and revise practices, policies and training to help take race out of the equation to the extent it clouds or inappropriately impacts our decision making. My staff and I are striving to increase our own cultural awareness as well as our cultural humility as part of our institutional efforts to make progress. We strive to have our Tribal partners at the table with us at every opportunity to guide and provide the expertise we need. We have made improvements to the system, but the needle on the gauge representing Native children in the system has moved very little.
Ensuring compliance with ICWA and moving the needle on the gauge to be a more accurate reflection of our population will remain a top priority at OCS. However, OCS and the “child welfare system” are not comprised of internal employees only. The “system” is comprised of so many others who sit outside our walls but contribute in various ways to ensuring child safety, permanency and well-being. Everyone who works in or around child welfare does so with only the most admirable intentions. But, that doesn’t mean those good intentions can’t become askew, misaligned, or clouded by the complexity of working with diverse people who may be different from ourselves.
So, in the spirit of courageous conversations, I pose to you, the public, these questions:
Have you checked yourself lately to ensure your biases aren’t getting in the way? Are you truly practicing in a culturally competent manner and do you know how to translate that understanding to the decisions you are a part of everyday?
If you are like me, this isn’t a flip-the-switch kind of moment. It is a constant internal struggle to not “presume and assume” that I know, when the reality is that education and experience can only get you so far in truly understanding.
There are many ways to check yourself and/or seek guidance and increased understanding. The link to our Indian Child Welfare page, http://hss.alaska.gov/ocs/ICWA/default.htm, would be a great starting place to learn more. You are also encouraged to contact Dennis Swain, the OCS Statewide ICWA Coordinator, at 907-269-4077. Dennis could assist you and connect you with Tribal partners in your area who would be happy to talk with you further, as well.