SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A commission would identify the complex challenges facing Native American children across the country and recommend improvements to programs serving that population under legislation approved by Congress and sent to the president.
The U.S. Senate gave final approval Thursday to a bill that would establish an 11-member Commission on Native Children. The group would analyze several issues, including child abuse, domestic violence, poverty and crime, and would offer changes to streamline existing federal, state, local and tribal programs in an effort to bolster the chances that Native youth have to succeed.
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota who sponsored the legislation, said some of the programs serving Native American children do not coordinate with one another, hampering their ability to improve the well-being of children.
“We are missing the cohesive thing that we need, which is just taking a look at one child’s life, and what is it in that one child’s life that would make a difference in outcomes,” Heitkamp said.
Challenges facing Native youth abound, especially for those living on reservations, where federal experts say some children experience post-traumatic stress disorder comparable to that of military veterans returning from war zones. More than 1 in 3 American Indian and Alaska Native children live in poverty, and they have the lowest graduation rate of any racial group, with less than 70 percent finishing high school.
The members of the proposed commission, who would be appointed by the president as well as House and Senate leadership, are expected to be experts in areas of juvenile justice, social work, education, and mental and physical health.
The legislation also includes a provision that would bring together an advisory group for the commission made up of Native American children who have experience in serving on the council of a tribal, regional or national youth organization.
“They are the ones that we should be listening to the most,” said Erik Stegman, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. “What is it like to be in their shoes in their communities? What is bringing healing to their community? We need to have those experts in dialogue with those youth.”
Heitkamp’s office expects President Barack Obama to sign the measure in October.