By Lisa Demer
Alaska has long been overwhelmed by reports of children in danger. Toddlers who are bruised, burned or beaten. Little ones wandering outside while parents lose themselves in drinking and drugs. Children victimized by sexual predators.
Especially at risk are Alaska Native children.
Now the state and Alaska tribes are preparing to try something that has never been done before.
They want to turn the responsibility of protecting Alaska Native children over to Native people themselves: tribe by tribe, village by village, duty by duty.
They hope the child welfare system will transform into something better if tribal services operate parallel to state services. That is what happened with health care when Alaska tribal organizations took over U.S. Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics. And the tribal organizations will be able to serve non-Native children too.
An essential step was formalized Thursday in Anchorage on the opening day of the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention.
At a long table set up in front of the main stage at AFN, Gov. Bill Walker, a state commissioner and representatives of 17 tribal organizations big and small signed an umbrella agreement known as a compact. It provides a framework for tribal authority in an area that has been state government's responsibility. The document inks in a partnership between the state and tribes. It sets general terms including requirements to keep children's cases confidential and the types of duties that can be taken over.
The moment will be remembered for decades, said Richard "Chaylee Eesh" Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
"We are getting recognized for our sovereign ability to take care of ourselves," Peterson said Wednesday at an AFN tribal leaders conference, where the effort was presented.
More than 3,000 Alaska children are in state foster care or otherwise in state custody for their own protection.
About 57 percent of them are Alaska Native, almost triple the proportion of Native children overall in Alaska, said Valerie "Nurr'araaluk" Davidson, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Social Services and a member of Bethel's tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council.
It was Davidson -- the former general counsel for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium -- who first raised the idea of a compact, like the tribal health agreement signed in 1994.
"If I may be so bold, it is about time," Davidson said at AFN to big applause.
Negotiations between the state and a number of tribes began in April and just wrapped up this month -- a seven-month process.
Already 11 tribal organizations work through the state to receive federal dollars that pay for some efforts to keep children safe, such as tribally licensed foster homes.
AFN took a direct role. Its general counsel and executive vice president, Nicole Borromeo, helped lead the effort. A group of state officials, tribal leaders and attorneys met repeatedly at AFN's headquarters.
Change will happen slowly, said Christy Lawton, director of the state Office of Children's Services.
Tribes initially will be allowed to take on small, specific roles such as finding relatives of Native children or supervising visits with children. Tribal organizations also will get a chance to see if they can help the many families reported for abuse or neglect whose cases don't rise to the level that the state investigates, Lawton said.
Eventually some tribes -- if they so desire -- will take on most if not all the duties, Lawton said: investigations of reports of child abuse and neglect, foster care, working with troubled parents, adoptions.
(c)2017 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)