Friday, June 23, 2017
[Humboldt County] Tribal child welfare vetted in wake of state investigation, grand jury report
A significant portion of the child abuse and neglect reports that the Humboldt County grand jury states have been falling through the cracks because of poor communication issues with the county Child Welfare Services division might pertain to Native American children.
One of the two grand jury reports released in late May states that a high percentage of the abuse and neglect reports from the Klamath-Trinity Unified School District involved Native American youth. Native American children make up just 7 percent of the total children in the county, but represent nearly 40 percent of the foster youth handled by the Child Welfare Services Division, according to state data cited by the grand jury.
“Various local American Indian leaders as well as [Child Welfare Services] personnel have expressed their concerns about working together to provide better services to American Indian families, and following the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978,” the grand jury report states.
Both the state and the county are under scrutiny for compliance with tribal child abuse reporting laws and child welfare cases, which is briefly mentioned in the grand jury report. The California Attorney General’s Office is currently conducting what is now a more than year-long investigation into the county’s compliance with child abuse reporting laws.
The Attorney General’s Office confirmed last year that a substantial amount of information in the five years of county records that it subpoenaed pertained to information relating to tribal children. The grand jury report states that the subpoena requested data pertaining to the county’s process for removing Native American children from their families and their placement into foster homes.
“To protect its integrity, we can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” the Attorney General’s press office stated about the status of its investigation in an email to the Times-Standard last week.
The county Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Child Welfare Services division, stated it will not be responding to media questions regarding the grand jury report until it has submitted its formal responses to the grand jury. The department has 90 days from the date of the report — in this case May 30 — to respond to the grand jury.
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said to the Times-Standard earlier this month that his office is often overwhelmed by the number of child abuse cases. He stated his office and the Child Welfare Services division are currently working with the Attorney General’s Office to address the communications issues and response times to reports of child abuse and neglect.
The grand jury report stated and Honsal confirmed that reports of child abuse or neglect made to Child Welfare Services can sometimes take weeks before they receive a response. County policy is to respond within 24 hours, according to the grand jury.
“That communication piece has failed, that has absolutely failed over the last couple of years,” Honsal said earlier this month.
A report drafted by a coalition of California tribes known as the Indian Child Welfare Act Compliance Task Force — which included the Yurok Tribe and Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria — details what it called systematic failures by the state to protect tribes’ civil rights in child custody cases including under representation of tribes in custody cases.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in April that he will be making the state’s compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act a priority, though he did not provide a specific timeline on how to address the issues. The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed by Congress in 1978 in response to frequent cases in which tribal children were being removed from their families and placed into foster or adoptive homes and boarding schools. The legislation’s goal was to keep tribal children with tribal families and communities so as to not separate them from their culture and tribal communities whenever possible.
One of the county grand jury members, Byron Nelson Jr., is a Hoopa Valley Tribe member, the tribe’s historian and the tribe’s former chief judge.
Nelson said it was difficult for tribes to be represented in child welfare cases when the case was in the state superior court’s jurisdiction.
“And as far as representation in the court itself, we don’t have a public defender assigned. There is no budget for that. There never was,” Nelson said.
The Indian Child Welfare Act Compliance Task Force’s report found that tribes were underrepresented in a majority of child custody cases as they often do not have a lawyer or do not have the funds to send them to court. Nelson said he would have to advise family members himself about what their responsibilities were in child welfare cases. He also stated he would have to work with superior courts in several states to bring the child custody case back into the jurisdiction of the tribal court.
“I think the only way [the Indian Child Welfare Act] can be effective is for them to enforce the law to its full extent,” Nelson said. “If any of these persons that worked on cases for the county have violated the Indian Child Welfare Act then they should be held accountable to the full extent of the law.”
The task force report found that a lack of funding for state and county agencies to be trained on their responsibilities of Native American child welfare cases has led to many of the compliance issues.
“If they really wanted to help the children, I think they have an obligation to find money,” Nelson said.
June 22, 2017
By Will Houston