- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2016

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law a measure meant to bolster protections for Native American children placed into the tribal foster care system.

The law, which comes years after serious flaws were uncovered in the child welfare system of a Native American tribe in North Dakota, requires background checks before foster care placements are made by tribal social services agencies. The measure requires that agencies review national criminal records and child abuse or neglect registries in any state in which a would-be foster parent has lived in the preceding five years, and also forces foster care homes to undergo periodic safety recertifications.

Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, of North Dakota, said the measure ensures that Native American children living on a reservation have the same protections when assigned to foster care that children living off the reservation have.

“A decade ago, we worked in North Dakota to ensure that all adults living in a foster home were background checked to protect the children in their care, and now we have extended that same safety net for children in tribal foster care in North Dakota and across the nation,” Hoeven said.

Federal experts say some children living on reservations experience a form of post-traumatic stress from exposure to family turmoil. The symptoms are comparable to those of military veterans returning from war zones. And federal statistics show that Native American children have the third highest rate of victimization at 11.6 per 1,000 children of the same race or ethnicity. In 2009, more than 7,000 Native American children were victims of child abuse.

The Native American Children’s Safety Act, sponsored by Hoeven, comes five years after federal and state authorities found serious deficiencies with the administration of foster care on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The ineffectiveness of the tribe’s child social services was so severe that the federal government had to intervene, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over control of the system.

One case exemplifying the flagrant mistakes of the child protection system involved a woman who was awarded custody of infant twin girls despite a history of child neglect. She ended up being sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2013 for the death of one of the children, who was thrown down an embankment.

The background check requirement under the law signed Friday applies to everyone living in a potential foster care house, not just the parents. A background check will also be required for any adult who moves into the home after the foster child has been placed with a family.

Erik Stegman, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, agreed with Hoeven that the new law’s requirements will put Native American children on “equal footing” with other children entering the foster care system.

“It does have broad tribal support, and we do hope that it improves the situation for Native youth,” Stegman said. “We definitely believe that tribal courts and other tribal welfare system officials should have that information and that by having that information they are able to make better determinations for what’s in the best interest of the Native children in their communities.”

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Reach Regina Garcia Cano on Twitter at: https://www.twitter.com/reginagarciakNO


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