Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Isaac and the head of the Health and Social Services Commissioner signed an historic agreement Wednesday that will give T-C-C the lead role in managing foster care for tribal children. The agreement is the first of its kind in the nation, and could serve as a model for other Native organizations.
It was only fitting that the Fairbanks Native Association JOM Dancers capped off Wednesday’s ceremony in the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. The occasion was all about preserving Alaska Native tradition and culture. And celebrating the signing of a landmark agreement, which longtime TCC administrator Don Shircel says will help Native foster kids stay in tribal homes located in their own communities.
“It takes a village. And with the signing of this agreement, here in the Interior, we are all part of that village,” Shircel said.
TCC President Jerry Isaac says the agreement worked out over 23 years of negotiations calls for the state to give his organization more authority, and funding, to help Native kids stay in tribally licensed foster homes in the familiar surroundings of their villages.
“The state is willing to cooperate with the tribes in the placement of children and using state resources to help offset the cost of placement,” Isaac said. “So it is a very historic step forward.”
Isaac says the new arrangement will help heal the cultural wounds Alaska Natives have suffered due to heavy-handed state and federal foster-care policies of the past.
“For many years,” he said, “we’ve had the history our children being removed from homes and placed into either adoption centers and/or homes without much say from the native community.”
Isaac says the agreement that he and state Health and Social Services Commissioner William Streuer signed is the first of its kind in the nation. And he says it will serve as a model for other Native organizations both here in Alaska and the Lower 48.
“This one is specifically for the Tanana Chiefs region,” he said. “And it was crafted in a way that it could be exportable to other regions.”
Isaac says the agreement also is historic because it represents a rare acknowledgement of tribal government’s sovereign authority. Sovereignty has sparked many clashes between Alaska Native leaders and state officials over the years. And Isaacs says he certainly has his differences with Gov. Sean Parnell over the issue.
But he gives credit to administration officials for maintaining a dialogue with T-C-C on the foster-care issue. And Isaac hopes the benefits of the new policy will soon become evident, especially for the state agency that oversees foster care, the Office of Children's Services, or OCS.
“Governor Parnell’s administration has taken a huge step forward in trying to solve long-standing issues,” he said. “Because of a lot of this stuff, the problems that the OCS is having in terms of placement, identification of foster homes, visitation rights, all of this stuff, could easily be handled by the villages, the tribes and their tribal courts.”
Streuer says he realized the advantages of tribal control over Native foster care soon after he took over at Health and Social Services three years ago.
He says that was before he experienced the complex legal and political issues that negotiators had been working on since 1990. He thinks those issues too often got in the way of the most important concern, which is helping children and families in trouble.
“Honestly, I think the big challenge that we had is we weren’t focused on why we were doing it,” Streuer said. “We were focused on everything else. We focused on why we couldn’t do it. We focused on, well, the issues, whatever those may be, and we lost track of the kids."
OCS Director Christy Lawton says TCC manages foster care for about 150 kids right now. She says that number will grow to about 200 over the next three years as the new policy is phased in.