Negotiations sour on tribal child welfare agreement

Negotiations broke down last week over a compact between Alaska Native tribes, tribal organizations, and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The agreement, called the Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact, was signed in 2017 by then-Gov. Bill Walker.

Alaska Native children make up more than half of the children placed in foster care, even though they are only 20% of the children in Alaska. The problem is that the state does not have staffing in many rural communities to intervene in cases where children are at risk.

But tribes that are already in those communities can step in to protect the children. The compact gives tribes more control over their children’s welfare.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel responds to questions during a press availability in the Alaska State Capitol on March 9, 2018. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat, chairs the Alaska House of Representatives’ special committee on tribal affairs.

“The biggest takeaway around the concern about whether the child welfare compact continues is that this is a historic government-to-government agreement, the first of its kind in the country between the state and tribes in Alaska, that is providing support to help with overwhelming caseloads that the state is doing, that is providing support in areas around the state that are seeing turnover rates from 50-80%,” Zulkosky said.

The compact itself is complex. It gives tribes more resources and freedom to step in and do what the state has not had resources to do, and that is to take care of Alaska Native children that could be placed in foster care. For instance, the compact says that tribes can conduct their own investigations into child welfare cases and participate in picking families to care for the children. It also allows tribes to negotiate for state funding to provide those services.

But that funding is imperiled by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration.

The Association of Village Council Presidents is a nonprofit that serves 56 federally-recognized tribes. In a statement, it says that the negotiations got off to a rough start when the state changed some of its negotiating team at the last minute. The state also “refused to transfer funding for services that were already negotiated and agreed to in January 2019,” according to the AVCP press release.

In a statement, a Dunleavy spokesperson says that the negotiation broke down because of two issues: The administration expected that funding for next year would go toward “direct services and deliverables,” and it expected tribes to come up with sufficient insurance to cover liabilities and risks on any work the state does.

The Alaska Federation of Natives also called on Dunleavy to step in, but Dunleavy said that “I have full faith and confidence that my policy advisor, John Moller, can adequately represent me on these matters.”

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