Building a Better Nation through Stronger Families

Lillian Sparks with Linda K. Smith at the ACF Tribal and Native American Grantee conferenceEarlier this month, I had the pleasure of joining Lillian Sparks, Commissioner for the Administration for Native Americans, and Linda Smith, our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood, at the ACF Tribal and Native American Grantee conference, co-sponsored by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, another Health and Human Services agency.  This meeting was an opportunity to come together to celebrate the many tribes and native organizations operating ACF programs and providing critical services to families and children in need.

At the opening session, I shared some of the visits I have made to Indian Country since my appointment as Acting Assistant Secretary.  Although each community and culture is distinct, the common thread is the importance of family, culture and community.  Earlier this year, after much hard work, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe became the first tribal nation to qualify for direct funding for Title IV-E.  This provision allows tribes to design and implement child welfare programs, including foster care, adoption and guardianship programs, responsive to your culture, local needs and concerns.

It was my distinct pleasure to attend the signing ceremony at Port Gamble along with Commissioner Bryan Samuels from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families. Having the direct funding means tribal children will be able to remain in their community to receive the care and services they require.

All over the country, where communities have been allowed the flexibility to run their own child welfare programs, we have seen dramatic improvements in the quality of foster care, a reduction in the number of children removed from their homes, and an increase in successful reunifications.

ACF now has the ability to sign up to 10 agreements a year for the next five years. We hope to sign many more such agreements with tribal nations.

Also at last week’s conference, our Deputy Assistant Secretary, Linda Smith, shared her journey of advocating for the needs of children and families. Early in her career she was the child care director for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Now, she is able to impact all tribes with policies and programs informed by her real-world understanding of the challenges tribes are facing in creating high quality early care and education services for the next seven generations.

The conference was an opportunity to hear from ACF staff and technical assistance providers, sharing each others’ stories of success, as well as the challenges, and engaging in a dialogue about how to ensure ACF programs and services meet the needs of those they are intended to serve.   To that end, Commissioner Sparks hosted two listening sessions with ACF leadership specifically to target the input from constituencies not at the table during tribal consultation: urban Indian populations and native nonprofits and Pacific Islander communities.  Many useful comments and ideas were shared at both of these sessions.

Listening, however, will only get us half way there. At ACF we are committed to moving forward with new ways of collaborating and partnering with Native American communities to increase the self-sufficiency and resilience of the people served by ACF programs.  Part of this is ensuring that ACF staff takes part in training.  Earlier this year, we hosted training for grants management staff; and, just prior to the conference, training was offered in DC and broadcasted to the regional offices.  The training focused on helping staff better serve Native American communities through a deeper understanding of the history of American Indian, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders and the government- to-government relationship that exists with federally recognized Indian Tribes.

For years we lost sight of our shared humanity and instead insisted that we all assimilate and be the same on the outside: how we looked, how we spoke, and what we believed. I am proud to be part of an administration that respects individuals for who they are and appreciates the richness different cultures add to our shared experience.  By hosting this conference, ACF demonstrates this respect and appreciation, and together with tribal nations and native-serving organizations we will weave the web of support for future generations of Native Americans.

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