Indian Child Welfare prioritizes tribal families, children
Cherokee Nation employees walk in support of Indian Child Welfare in May. With about 120 employees, ensuring the safety of Cherokee children is ICW’s primary job and has procedures in place to act quickly once a referral is received about a child possibly in danger in a home. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – For the Cherokee Nation’s Indian Child Welfare, ensuring children’s safety is its essential job component. And to do that, ICW has about 120 employees at five locations who follow specific protocols.
Charla Miller, ICW program manager and Child Protective Services intake, said ICW acts quickly once a call is received regarding a possibly endangered Cherokee child.
Miller, a CPS intake for 16 years, said although ICW receives the same guidelines as state child agencies, it approaches situations differently.
“We are Native people working with Native children and families. We understand, and we try to, as best as we can, honor their culture and traditions while maintaining the safety of children. Sometimes you don’t receive that on the state side,” she said.
ICW receives referrals from throughout the United States, but most are from the 14 counties in the tribe’s jurisdiction, she said.
“We treat all of our referrals as an emergency. We don’t delay going out or initiating them. At the beginning it is just an allegation, but we still treat each case quickly,” Miller said. “From the onset of when we do an investigation to determine if the child is safe or not happens within a day.”
Once a call is received and a child is in known danger, an ICW investigator is assigned and begins making contact with the child. After contact, the investigator interviews the child and the family. Miller said the investigators ask questions to determine every child’s safety and have to make quick determinations about a child’s safety because ICW will not speculate about a child’s safety.
“We do make efforts to prevent removal because...removal is not part of our goal,” she said.
Although the process is fast, ICW undergoes many checks and balances to provide approval for removal from the home. Once a worker calls Miller, she consults with the ICW executive director to decide if it is an emergency situation.
“If the executive director does approve, we go to the next level of approval, which is the (CN) attorney general’s office. If approval is given, we contact our tribal court judge and ask for removal,” she said.
During the first 48 hours, ICW staff members work without leaving the scene and work through checks and balances to be certain the case is on the right track. Miller said during this time ICW is investigating, looking for placement, purchasing items needed by the child and scheduling parental visits.
“It is almost five days of little sleep, no lunch and no breaks. It is just full on. We are hands on with our children by being back in the home or placement within three days,” she said “Our ultimate goal is always reunification. We transport our parents back and forth to court if we need to.”
ICW has cases assigned to four investigators who cover the tribe’s jurisdiction. Assignments may include covering Claremore Indian Hospital, W.W. Hastings Hospital, health care clinics on tribal land, Cherokee Heights in Pryor, the Birdtail Housing Addition in Tahlequah and individual allotment lands under ICW responsibility.
Miller said being familiar with tribal land ensures that referrals aren’t going unnoticed. “We have to look at an address and say, ‘I think I know where that area is at and it could be tribal land.’ We constantly are verifying to make sure we aren’t missing referrals that come through.”
Because it doesn’t have the high numbers of cases like the state’s Department of Human Services, ICW can focus on the problem’s source and try to fix it for each family. Miller said ICW always has the best interest of Cherokee families in mind.
“We aren’t just running in and running out trying to make a fix. We truly try to get to the bottom of what is happening. Nobody knows our families better than we do because we are their tribe,” Miller said. “Nobody can have more care and concern about how our children are raised than us.”
As of publication, nearly 80 children were in ICW care with most being in 45 foster homes. Each year, ICW works on roughly 1,400 cases. For more information about CN ICW, visit http://www.cherokeekids.org/