Tribe’s Foster Care Program working for families
By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Foster Care Program of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a huge responsibility on its shoulders and a huge workload to boot. As of Wednesday, Nov. 30, there are currently 67 children in custody due to various factors within their families such as physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, neglect, and substance abuse by parents.
“Our goal is to return the children to their home,” said Nikki Toineeta, Foster Home Licensing family safety worker, who related the age of the children in the system range from six weeks to 17 years.
There are currently 14 licensed Foster Homes through the program with 13 of those being American Indian homes. “All of our children, but two, are in a Native placement somewhere.” There are currently three homes that are pending paperwork approval, and three homes have just started the process.
She added, “Some of them are in kinship placements. Some of them are with family members who we’ve found to be appropriate to keep them, but for those who we can’t find family members who either want them or are ok to keep them, we put them in foster care.”
On family placements, Toineeta commented, “Our definition of family is anyone who’s had a relationship with that child at any point.”
The time the children are in foster care varies. “For children six years and younger, we try to find a permanent place for them within six months, and if they’re seven or older, we try to do that within a year,” noted Toineeta.
She said the time could fluctuate some if the parent(s) show progress and continue to show progress but added that 18 months is an unofficial top end. “Where we’ve only been open for a year, we haven’t seen this happen yet…”
Toineeta said the final decision rests with the Family Court. “We make recommendations, and then the Court makes the decision. So, we have no control over whether our kids get to go home or not.”
Sasha Sampson, Foster Home Licensing family safety worker, said foster parents are needed for all ages. “There is a huge need for foster parents who are willing to take teenagers. Everybody wants babies because they’re cute and cuddly, but not too many people want teenagers.”
Toineeta said the Foster Care Program can help steer families towards many tribal programs including transitional housing, child support and TANF, behavioral health team, and substance abuse help. “We can provide as much as we can for these families and just be a general support for them.”
Sampson added, “We also offer in-home services. We have a team of in-home workers that try to keep the kids in the home, and they’ll work with the family whenever they can so that the kids don’t get taken out.”
Foster care is the last resort according to Toineeta. “The investigators and the in-home team will do everything they can to try to keep these families together before we get to a point of removal unless it’s an emergency situation.”
Since the program has only been in existence for a little over a year (October 2015), there were children placed in various county agencies prior, and Toineeta said the ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) team is involved in some of those.
“They go out and recommend for those cases,” she said. “They’ll go to court and represent for those children, and we have transferred some cases in, but if cases are so far in court, there’s no point in us taking them because they’ll just have to start over and then that just makes those kids to have to be in custody just that much longer. And, most of those kids have been in custody for years.”
Toineeta also noted that the point of foster care is not to adopt children. “I have a lot of people contact me wanting to adopt children, but we’re not here to try to get these kids adopted. We’re here to try to reunify them with their families.”
Sometimes, that is a hard road for everybody – including the Foster Care Program staff.
“We have some heartbreaking stories,” said Toineeta. “Most of the families that we work with have some type of substance abuse issue.”
If you are interested in becoming a licensed foster care home, a meeting is planned for Thursday, Dec. 8 at 6pm at the EBCI PHHS Family Safety Building (old transit building). There is an application and interview process, and all applicants must pass background checks and complete a 30-hour class entitled MAPP (Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting) which is held three hours a week for 10 weeks. For more information, contact Toineeta 359-1520.