Tribe, state look for ways to improve child protective services

CASPER — Northern Arapaho leaders and state officials are looking for ways to improve a child protective services program that the tribe says needs more money from the state to be more effective. 

Gov. Mark Gordon and Northern Arapaho Tribe leaders met last week to discuss the tribe’s child protective and social services, which is funded with help from the state but managed by the tribe. The other Wind River Reservation tribe, the Eastern Shoshone, also administers its own child protective services with the help of state money. 

Northern Arapaho leaders requested the meeting, Gordon said in an interview last week with the Star-Tribune. The meeting resulted in an agreement to form a working group made up of state and tribal representatives to look at funding levels, and how the state and tribe could improve the relationship between the two sides in regards the tribe’s child social services. 

“The case was made that they don’t have enough services, particularly around foster care to do the job they’d like to do,” Gordon said. “And so we talked about establishing a working group to address these issues.”

The two sides will also rework the contract the state has with the Northern Arapaho to provide money to the tribe to manage its child social services. That money pays for administrative services like social workers and case management, foster family payments and other services like mental health or substance abuse counseling and parenting classes.

The approximately $4.3 million two-year contract expires at the end of June next year. 

The working group is expected to begin meeting sometime after the start of the year, Gordon and another state official said. 

While Gordon said the tribe made it clear it wants more state money to pay for child protective and social services, he added he’d like to also examine “programmatic” improvements to better cooperate or have better long-term results. 

“Are there ways that we can tweak the services we provide now?” he asked. “Are there new opportunities for a problem that’s just getting bigger?” 

Lee Spoonhunter, the Northern Arapaho Business Council chairman, said although the tribe would like to see some changes to the current contract structure, the overall goal remains the same: to protect children and eventually reunite them with their parents. 

“That’s our ultimate goal, family reunification,” he said in an interview. “What we envision … is healthy families. With this new agreement, we don’t want to compromise any services.” 

But, he said the current arrangement with the state doesn’t provide enough money to adequately cover the expenses of running the Northern Arapaho’s family services programs. For example, the tribe is two months behind paying foster parents or relatives taking care of children who are in protective custody. 

“What is happening is that we are having a shortage of services for children and families,” Spoonhunter explained. 

The “heart of” the issue is the funding question and a change made a few years ago to how the state allocates money for family services, said Korin Schmidt, director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services. 

Wyoming’s two tribes started managing their own child social services about 20 years ago. Schmidt said the Eastern Shoshone are not involved in the current discussions and she isn’t aware of that tribe raising similar issues. 

Before 2016, if the Northern Arapaho – or another family services provider, like a county – overspent their budget, they could take more state money that was allocated for child welfare services, Schmidt said. The tribe could do that because the money was shared by all local child welfare services in the state through one source of funding, and as long as there was money in that account, it could be used by anybody.

“Everybody was sharing one pot of money. So there no cap, per se, on their contract,” she said. “They had a contract and they had a set amount in their contract, but the practice at that time allowed them to overspend.” 

After 2016, the state started giving money to individual local child welfare programs, she said. In the case of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, the state has a contract for those services and essentially has a cap on the dollar amount given to each tribe, meaning if either needs money beyond its budget, it’s up to the tribe to pay for needed services itself. 

The state provides the Northern Arapaho’s money on a quarterly basis.

The Northern Arapaho started to fall behind with payments after the change, often spending their quarterly allotment before the quarter was up — and in some cases were still paying for services from the previous agreement — so the state helped out with a one-time payment of almost $430,000 to allow them to catch up. 

Still, the Northern Arapaho — like Spoonhunter said — have been falling behind on payments for services, causing the tribe to reach out to the state for ways to improve their contract. 

One solution, Schmidt said, would be for the tribe – with the state’s help even – to pursue federal reimbursement, or IV-E funds, for their foster care services. 

Receiving that money means adhering to strict standards, Schmidt said. But, she added that meeting those strict requirements would lead to improved services for the Northern Arapaho because all those involved in the child protective services process, from family court judges to social workers, would need to follow federal guidelines. 

“It’s incredibly difficult to be IV-E compliant,” she said. “It’s no easy task … but it does really provide a road map to best practices.” 

Schmidt said other changes – like tweaking language to the state’s contract with the tribe to respect the tribe’s authority and sovereignty — could also be made. At the same time, Northern Arapaho enrolled members who are served by the tribe’s services on and around the Wind River Reservation are also Wyoming citizens. 

“We respect their sovereignty,” she said. “These children are also Wyoming children.” 

Spoonhunter said he’s optimistic after the initial meeting last week – and working group meetings to follow – will result in a new contract that both sides are satisfied with, adding that he and his Business Council colleagues felt that Gordon listened to their concerns and genuinely wants to help. 

“I was very pleased with the way we were received,” he said of last week’s meeting. “This is for children. This is for families.”