UAA researchers hope to move child welfare away from separation and toward community building

Chloe Lewis plays on the school playground in Kwigillingok. (Anne Hillman)

When a child enters the foster care system, it often means being removed from their family, a traumatic process that disproportionately impacts Native children. 

A new study from the University of Alaska Anchorage explores alternative child welfare strategies to limit family separation.

Saniġaq Jessica Ullrich is co-author on the study. She is Iñupiaq, enrolled in the Nome Eskimo Community and worked for the Alaska Office of Children’s Services for more than eight years. 

“My whole passion has been about ending the disproportionate number of Alaska Native children in out-of-home care,” Ullrich said. “And I felt like I did everything I could within the system to create change, but the number stayed the same.”

Of the more than 3,000 Alaska children in out-of-home care, roughly two-thirds of them are Alaska Native or American Indian. Alaska Native people only make up a fifth of the state’s population. 

In order to address the disparity, Ullrich left OCS to go back to school and get her doctorate in social welfare. In her dissertation, she interviewed people with experience in the child welfare system, including Alaska Native foster care alumni and relative caregivers, as well as foster parents. She said she heard stories of trauma from the separation of families and loss of culture. She equates it with trauma experienced by Native children in residential boarding schools. 

“What happened in the past is still happening today,” Ullrich said. “And I feel like there’s not enough attention or recognition that the current policies of child welfare are slanted toward removal.”

In her new study published this month with fellow UAA social work researcher Yvonne Chase, the two looked at an alternative approach to child welfare. Their proposed framework is built around empowering families and communities, rather than removing children from their homes. That means acknowledging past trauma, working to get families the resources they need and shifting the focus towards reunifying families. 

Ullrich said instead of finding more foster care families, OCS could look for “safety plan participants.” They’d be tasked with checking up on families to make sure they’re OK, rather than removing children and taking over caregiving responsibilities.

“I don’t have the ability, time and resources to be a foster parent right now,” Ullrich said. “But instead, I’m assisting, and I’m helping to preserve a family, and keep the children with their parents if at all possible.”

Ullrich said communities might be able to handle their own child welfare cases through more preventative measures. She points out that the Yup’ik village of Kwigillingok is already doing that through its Child Protection Team. 

“Kwigillingok showed a drop from 20 something cases to zero in a relatively short amount of time because there was that relationship and connectedness that happened among the community members,” Ullrich said. “Checking in, ‘How are you? How can I support you? What’s going on?’”

She said in some cases it’s still safer to remove the child from their home, but using preventative measures would drastically reduce that need.

Funding this community-centered approach to child welfare, however, has been a problem for decades. Chase, the other author of the study, put forth similar recommendations to the first Bush administration in the early 1990s. 

Chase said addressing child welfare goes beyond the state Office of Children’s Services. It would require top-down approaches to byproducts of generational trauma, including poverty, substance misuse, housing and food insecurity. She said these preventive measures aren’t well funded. 

“Every time we move funds from something like investigation and removal to prevention, we lose the funding. So I think there’s also a reluctance on the part of systems of agencies to do that because they know in budget crunch times, that’s what goes.”

The study notes the federal government has budgeted more than $9 billion on foster care and adoption this fiscal year with only millions of dollars on support and prevention. 

Chase and Ullrich hope their research will show stakeholders that to enact real change in child welfare systems, lawmakers and administrators will have to look beyond where families are and instead address how they got there. 

For now, Ullrich said she’s working on putting together resources for tribes to enact community-focused child welfare systems in their own communities. 

The study “A Connectedness Framework: Breaking the Cycle of Child Removal for Black and Indigenous Children” was published earlier this month in the International Journal on Child Maltreatment.

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.

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