Federal Grant Could Help Tribe Keep Foster Children in the Community

The Pascua Yaqui tribe is facing a two-part problem: a significant increase in child welfare cases and too few Yaqui foster homes. The tribe, located west of Tucson, is hoping a federal grant will make it easier to recruit tribal families to care for children who have been removed from their homes and help them maintain cultural connections.

With a rising caseload — almost a 40 percent increase since January 2014 — and one foster care coordinator and three case workers for the reservation, the child welfare system is not set up for high-quality case management, said Gabriel Lopez, the Pascua Yaqui Children Services Manager. It is set up for crisis management.

Yaqui officials plan to apply for a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Title IV-E grant in September. The money would, in part, help increase payments to foster families. The grant would cover 80 percent of payments for an estimated 75 of the 90 children now in the reservation’s child welfare system, Mr. Lopez said.

Tribal payments for foster parents are fixed at Arizona child welfare system levels of $650 to $700 per child, Mr. Lopez said. The tribe depends on a core group of about 15 foster families.

The financial impact of caring for additional children is especially challenging in this reservation community. Approximately 44 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, and the unemployment rate is roughly 23 percent, according to the 2014 Pascua Yaqui Tribe Regional Partnership Council report. The Pascua Yaqui reservation is home to about 3,500 people.

Pascua Yaqui Social Services Offices
The Pascua Yaqui tribe manages its foster care through social services offices housed in a small portable building on the reservation.Samantha Schmidt/NYT Institute

The Bureau of Indian Affairs makes foster care payments to families and pays about half the salary costs of the tribe’s child welfare services, Mr. Lopez said. The agency reduced all foster care payments to families by 20 percent in 2009.

In addition to regular foster care payments, the bureau used to distribute a $300 annual voucher for each child to cover clothing costs. Six years ago it was cut to $150 and, as of last year, it was eliminated, Mr. Lopez said.

The tribe has made up for the loss with revenue from its two casinos, which covers the remaining half of the child welfare staff’s salaries and stipends to some families caring for children of relatives. But casino revenues are not enough to keep up with the rising need, Mr. Lopez said.

“We’re always in a black hole. We need more workers, we need more staff, we need more buildings, we need more vehicles, but there’s no funding. Nothing grows.”

—Gabriel Lopez

The Title IV-E grant approval could help Yaqui parents like Alyssa Preciado, a single mother whose finances have been tight. For five months last year she cared for three foster children as well as five children of her own, including her cousin’s two young sons, whom she adopted.

The three foster children have been reunited with their family. Now Ms. Preciado is providing care for a 1-year-old boy with an underdeveloped brain and a muscular disorder that inhibits him from crawling, sitting up by himself or chewing food.

Ms. Preciado also provides temporary care for foster children in emergency cases every few weekends. She spends as much as $800 on food and $200 on diapers each month. With a full-time job as a human resources specialist with the tribe, she does not qualify for food stamps, but her children get free lunch at school.

“I rarely ever buy myself anything. Any income I get goes to the bills and then to the kids.”

—Alyssa Preciado

Tribal officials hope the Title IV-E grant funds will enable more Yaqui foster parents to become licensed, which requires paid parenting classes. Increasing the number of foster care homes and resources on the reservation will enable the transfer of more Yaqui children from the state system to the reservation’s child welfare system, keeping connections to tribal families, Mr. Lopez said.

The Pascua Yaqui tribe was given a $300,000 grant in September 2013 to offset the costs of developing a Title IV-E application, an extensive two-year process that involves data collection and staff training. The tribe hired a staff member with the sole job of completing the application.

The federal funds were first offered to tribes in 2008, and 80 of them showed interest. Only five have been approved, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in February. The Navajo Nation, with reservations in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, was one of the first to receive approval, said Gladys Ambrose, a licensed clinical social worker at the Navajo Nation Department of Family Services.

Many tribes have been hesitant to apply because of cultural issues, said David Simmons, director of Government Affairs and Advocacy at the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Previous Title IV-E terms required tribes to move toward adoption and termination of parental rights to avoid children’s lingering in foster care, which violated a tribal emphasis on familial bonds, he said.

Distribution of foster situations
Blanca Navarro/NYT Institute

Guidelines now allow a foster parent to become a child’s guardian, providing more stability without terminating parental rights. But moving into guardianship is not an easy financial transition, because guardians get 25 percent less in monthly foster care payments, Mr. Lopez said.

The grant is not a blanket fix. It does not apply to about 150 Yaqui children who live off the reservation and who are in the state system. Those children are covered by the Indian Child Welfare Act and must abide by the guidelines that push early adoption for children under age 3.

Tony Sanchez, whom Yaquis refer to as The Stork, works with Yaqui children who live off the reservation, including some in different states. Last year he had an “overwhelming” caseload of nearly 40 children, he said.

Two of those children live on the reservation with Josie Baker, who first became a foster parent last year when she took in her two grandchildren.

The Baker family
Josie Baker, a Yaqui foster mother, standing; her daughter Bonnie Vega, middle; Ms. Baker's adopted daughter, Lali; and their dog, Fat Boy.Samantha Schmidt/NYT Institute

Ms. Baker was once a foster child herself and was moved to Iowa at age 6. She did not learn she was Yaqui until age 22, when she met her birth family. When her birth mother got sick in 1995, she moved to the reservation.

She started taking care of her two grandchildren, in addition to her 7-year-old adopted niece, and quit her job to take care of them. Finances were so strained that she had to go to a food bank.

Because the Bureau of Indian Affairs provides only about $40 per child each month to unlicensed foster parents who take in a relative, the tribe provides a $200 monthly stipend to parents like Ms. Baker, Mr. Lopez said.

“They look at it as, ‘This is your relative, so if you step up, this is your responsibility,’ ” Mr. Lopez said. “That’s a real hardship for relatives.”

The grandchildren were reunited with their mother in October. Then Ms. Baker decided to become a licensed foster parent and has since taken in the two boys. She receives a total of $1,300 a month. She wants to become their legal guardian, but said she was not sure how she would manage the 25 percent reduced payments that come with guardianship. She might have to go back to work.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ms. Baker said. “We’ll manage. We’ve managed before.”