ANCHORAGE - Two Alaska Native tribes have filed a lawsuit, accusing the state of violating state and federal laws regarding the care of Native children in state custody.
The Ekwok and Curyung tribes contend the state fails to find safe and appropriate homes for children who are tribal members and taken from their parents due to abuse or neglect. The suit was filed Dec. 17 in Dillingham Superior Court.
Ekwok is a Yup'ik village of about 130 people 43 miles northeast of Dillingham. Curyung, with about 1,400 members, is the federally recognized tribe in Dillingham and is the original Yup'ik name for the community.
Native children are being separated from their families, their communities and their culture, said tribal leaders and lawyers for Alaska Legal Services Corp., which filed the suit.
"It was becoming more and more of a problem, and our children were not receiving protections under that law like they were supposed to," said Dorothy B. Larson, Curyung tribal council administrator.
While only two of Alaska's 227 recognized tribes are suing, more may join the action once they become aware of it, said James Davis, Alaska Legal Services supervising attorney.
"The concerns are shared by a lot of tribes," Davis said.
State officials weren't prepared to comment on the lawsuit, but said the state Division of Family and Youth Services struggles to recruit enough Native foster families.
As of Dec. 2, about 60 percent of the 1,878 Alaska children in foster care, treatment centers and other out-of-home settings were Native, according to DFYS. But only a quarter of Alaska's children are Native.
DFYS doesn't know how many of its approximately 1,175 foster families are Native. Its foster parent database lacks racial information on about one-third of the families. Of the rest, about 300 are Native and 500 are non-Native, according to DFYS.
The lawsuit asserts that DFYS often fails to notify the tribes when it takes custody of a young tribal member, even though the tribe could help the state find a good home. That violates the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, the suit contends.
The child welfare law seeks to preserve Native culture. Under the act, relatives should receive first preference for taking in children who are abused or neglected. If a relative doesn't come forward, then a foster home approved by the tribe should be given preference and, after that, a Native foster home approved by the state.
Instead, the children often end up with strangers or in shelters where they stay longer than they should, the suit said.
DFYS faces a range of difficulties in recruiting Native foster families, according to a background paper provided by DFYS officials. Rural homes sometimes can't meet strict state standards. And the process itself may discourage some families.
"There is a distrust of the state asking so many personal questions in order for the family to become a licensed foster parent," the background paper said.
DFYS is stepping up its recruitment efforts for Native families through radio and television advertisements.