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More than 33 years after Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, American Indian children in Utah are still being removed from their homes and placed in foster care far too often — a troubling statistic that is the focus of the state's tribes and government officials.

True, there has been a vast improvement in out-of-home placements over those decades. In 1976, two years before passage of the act, American Indian children in Utah were 1,500 times more likely to be in foster care than other children in the state, said Utah Appeals Court Judge William Thorne, who spoke March 16 at the first Indian Child Welfare Conference to be held in Salt Lake City.

Today, American Indian children are four times more likely to be in foster care, a rate still significant enough to place Utah in the top 10 states for disproportionate rates.

"They are better than they were, but they're not where they need to be yet," said Thorne, who is a member of the Pomo tribe and serves on the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care. "The children are still out of home more often than necessary."

The conference drew members of every tribe in Utah, judges, caseworkers, foster parents and even a state lawmaker to ponder why that is the case and what to do about it. Brent Platt, director of the state Division of Child and Family Services, opened the dialogue last spring when he met with elders in a two-day peace circle gathering to air views of child welfare.

"I feel like we need to do a better job with our Native American kids," said Platt, especially along the Wasatch Front where the bulk of the state's American Indian population resides.

American Indians comprise just 1 percent of Utah's population but make up 6 percent of all children in foster care. Thorne said cultural differences, rather than racism, are likely behind the numbers. Two-thirds of children are in foster care because of neglect rather than abuse, which Thorne pointed out is often subjective and amounts to "someone decided their own family was not good enough."

That notion was amplified in Utah through the federal boarding school program and the Indian Placement Program, which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operated between 1947 and 1996, he said. Through the program, thousands of American Indian children were placed in Mormon homes, where it was thought they would receive better educations and be easily assimilated into mainstream society. But critics said it undermined tribal ties and a sense of identity.

Thorne said one study found that American Indian kids raised in non-Indian homes were more likely to have a negative view of their own culture, leading researchers to conclude the children were left without positive images of their own heritage. Another troubling sign: American Indian youths have a suicide rate that is 1.5 to three times higher than that for children from other ethnic groups in the U.S. When considering just American Indian youths, the rate is six times higher for those living in non-Indian homes, according to one report.

"We really need to be thinking about doing things a different way," said Thorne, especially given the outcomes for children who age out of foster care. They are more likely to be undereducated, to have a mental disorder or post-traumatic stress syndrome and to end up homeless, in jail or dead within two years.

In Utah, a huge gap persists between the number of children in foster care and culturally appropriate homes for them. There are 156 children in care and about 11 state licensed foster homes where the primary provider is American Indian, according to DCFS.

"There is a huge need," said Mike Hamblin, director of foster/adoptive family recruitment for the Utah Foster Care Foundation.

But Hamblin said many would-be foster families decline to take American Indian children because the Indian Child Welfare Act makes adoption, following termination of parental rights, so difficult. The act, designed to protect children's best interests as well as help preserve stability of American Indian tribes, specifies that priority in foster care placements and adoptions of American Indian children is to be given to extended family, other tribe members or other Indian families.

But few states follow the act to the letter, Thorne said, particularly when it comes to looking at extended family on both sides for placement and adoption. And fostering ongoing relationships with family could help avoid detrimental outcomes, he said — something tribal courts may be better able to do.

"The challenge is just getting foster families to open up to the possibilities of supporting children's relationships with extended family members," Hamblin said.

Anita Fineday, chief judge for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said her tribe suspends rather than terminates parental rights, leaving open the possibility for contact even if the parent does not have custody. It also preserves extended family relationships.

That idea resonated for Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price, who attended the conference.

"I like the idea that they don't terminate parental rights — even if all they do is send a picture and a letter one time a year," said Watkins, who has a Navajo foster son who is now an adult. "I think they are doing things we should be doing."

Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978

Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act to prevent breakup of American Indian families after a 1976 report showed "an alarmingly high percentage" of children were in "non-Indian" foster and adoptive homes or institutions. It governs what is supposed to happen if an American Indian child is placed in state custody, giving tribal courts jurisdiction for children who are members or eligible for membership in a recognized tribe.