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UB social work researcher receives major grant to help reunify Native American families

Melanie Sage will study states’ compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act and develop materials to improve communication among all stakeholders

Release Date: November 14, 2017

Melanie Sage

“There are no measures to ensure the courts and child welfare systems abide by the law, which says that we should take extra steps to make sure indigenous children remain with their families because of a history of government interventions that have broken up Native families.”
Melanie Sage, assistant professor of social work
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A University at Buffalo social work researcher will use a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to gather evidence and produce resources to improve the services state agencies offer to Native American families involved in child welfare cases.

The HHS’s Administration for Children and Families originally awarded the funding to Melanie Sage, an assistant professor in UB’s School of Social Work, when she was a faculty member at the University of North Dakota. She has received permission to formally transfer the grant to UB.

“This continues to be a close collaboration with University of North Dakota, but I’ll be supervising the project from UB,” she says.

As principal investigator of the five-year project, she says the goal of her team’s work is to increase how well states comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), legislation enacted in 1978 that set federal guidelines for child custody proceedings involving Native American children.

“This law [ICWA] has been around for nearly 40 years and it isn’t upheld well,” says Sage, one of the few social workers in the country studying ICWA implementation and compliance.

“There are no measures to ensure the courts and child welfare systems abide by the law, which says that we should take extra steps to make sure indigenous children remain with their families because of a history of government interventions that have broken up Native families.”

ICWA is a controversial law that private adoption attorneys have challenged, arguing that the legislation is race-based. But Sage clarifies that it’s a child’s membership in a tribal nation that determines protection in ICWA cases, similar to procedures used when U.S. families adopt children from countries.

But unlike working relationships with other countries, a history of mistrust and the strain of poor communication weakens dealings between social service agencies and tribal governments.

“It’s states and court systems that have not done well in this area,” says Sage. “We’ve identified many of the roadblocks to successful implementation of ICWA, things like child welfare workers who don’t understand what must be done on a case in order to abide by the law. Or courts that don’t know who to notify within tribes to help reunify families.”

When Sage originally moved to North Dakota it was clear that one of the state’s top child welfare concerns was that Native American children represented 40 percent of the children in foster care, while comprising only 10 percent of the population.

Those alarming statistics led the North Dakota Supreme Court to issue a call for proposals to help the justices understand what might be responsible for the disproportionality and the associated poor compliance with ICWA.

That experience improving internal court processes, a three-year undertaking from 2011 to 2014, is the foundation for the current grant. But the previous North Dakota research involved a single system, in this instance, the court’s interest in how it might be falling short of its own requirements.

When federal funding became available, Sage saw the chance to work toward full ICWA compliance by pulling many parties together and taking an interdisciplinary approach to improving communication between systems.

“We have Tribal government partners; Tribal social service partners; state-level child welfare partners; and partners in North Dakota at the child welfare training center,” says Sage. “We’re all working to try to improve relationships among those entities because we recognize that policy and practice fall apart because people are not talking to one another about what they’re doing.”

A curriculum to better educate case workers is ready for testing in North Dakota and is will be shared with other states by the end of next year, according to Sage.

Media Contact Information

Bert Gambini
News Content Manager
Arts and Humanities, Economics, Social Sciences, Social Work
Tel: 716-645-5334
gambini@buffalo.edu