Tribe, county DSS agencies have complex relationship

By Quintin Ellison and Colby Dunn • Staff writers

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is forced to rely on state social workers when it comes to protecting the tribe’s children from abuse and neglect.

That might change in the wake of Aubrey Littlejohn’s death. Some on the reservation are calling for the tribe to set up its own child- and adult-protection agency. Under the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, the tribe has the ability and federal right to do just that.

“I’ve been standing before tribal council ever since I’ve been in this position saying we need to take care of our own kids,” said Regina Rosario, program supervisor for Heart-to-Heart, a child-advocacy organization that works with tribal victims of child abuse.

This possibility was under discussion by tribal members and officials even before Aubrey’s death, Rosario said, in meetings held by the council’s social services committee.

Until — and if — that happens, the tribe and various county social service agencies must work together. Cases of suspected child abuse are handled by either Jackson or Swain counties for their respective portions of the reservation.

While Swain County DSS refused to speak to reporters about their role in Cherokee Bob Cochran, Jackson County’s DSS director, said the relationship between his county and the tribe is like any relationship in life: it requires good-faith work and thought.

“You have to maintain it,” Cochran said. “We also try to recruit and keep Native American staff. But, even when we can’t, we work hard to have our folks posted down there (in Cherokee) so they can develop those relationships.”

Cochran has six employees assigned to Jackson County’s portion of the reservation. Some are enrolled members of the Eastern Band. Five of the six Cherokee-dedicated workers report to an office each day that is physically located on the Qualla Boundary.

Although federal law does stipulate that states dealing with American Indian tribes must bear the cost of providing those services, Cochran said he was “quite confident the state is not paying for it entirely.”  A variety of federal funding flows into the state’s social services programs, he said.

There are certain complexities for those agencies working with Eastern Band members. When children are removed from an unsafe situation, for example, DSS must try to place those children into Indian families.

“Basically, we work with the tribe in doing that,” Cochran said. “But … I do have the discretion, if I disagree with a recommendation of the tribe, to place the child elsewhere.”

A court can overrule a DSS director’s decision.

Usually, it doesn’t come to that, Cochran said. The tribe and DSS generally find mutually satisfactory care situations. DSS workers and Cherokee’s Family Support Services conduct joint house studies, and are comfortable working closely together, Cochran said.

David Simmons of the National Indian Child Welfare Association said that the agency’s work has shown, however, that tribally run child protective services are more successful at locating and dealing with neglect and abuse than their state or local counterparts.

This, said Simmons, isn’t because state agencies are always sub-par or lacking in their dealings with tribal children, but because tribal agencies are able to take a more tailored, culturally oriented approach that larger agencies just can’t.

“They have knowledge about the community that the state or county program is not going to have access to,” said Simmons. “They’re going to know more quickly, be more knowledgeable about what kinds of interventions are going to be successful. They have a better success rate, usually, at being able to develop resources. They take more cultural approaches to the work.”

Simmons, however, also notes that it’s impractical to expect all tribes to take up their own DSS work.

“Child protective services is one of the more expensive services to operate,” said Simmons. “You can’t do it halfway, too many things rely on that.”

The tribe hasn’t formally announced whether it intends to reassess the relationship with local DSS agencies, but Rosario said she intends to reintroduce the idea of tribal child protection at this month’s tribal council meeting.


Indian Child Welfare Act

The Indian Child Welfare Act is a federal law that governs the relationship between state social-services departments and Native Americans. The act includes the following language:

• Nothing in the act shall be construed as preventing the emergency removal of an Indian child in order to prevent imminent physical damage or harm to that child.

• The act specifies tribal courts have exclusive jurisdiction of children who reside on the reservation. If the child does not reside on a reservation, the jurisdiction must be transferred to tribal court.

• In an action leading to a foster care placement or in any termination of parental rights action affecting an Indian child who doesn’t reside on the reservation, the parents, guardian or custodian may petition for transfer of jurisdiction to a tribal court.

• At any time during proceedings of a foster care placement, the Indian custodian and Indian tribe have the right to intervene in the proceedings.

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