A Casey Q&A: Improving Foster Parent Recruitment in the Cherokee Nation

Posted September 3, 2019
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The Cherokee Nation's Hettie Charboneau

A recent Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion pub­li­ca­tion, Recruit­ing Fos­ter Par­ents and Strength­en­ing Child Wel­fare in Okla­homa, spot­lights the inspir­ing turn­around of Oklahoma’s strug­gling child wel­fare system.

It’s a trans­for­ma­tion that includes sys­tem reforms to ben­e­fit native chil­dren — and a sto­ry that show­cas­es how the Chero­kee Nation has worked with the Okla­homa Depart­ment of Human Ser­vices (OK DHS) in new ways to enhance out­comes and oppor­tu­ni­ties for native kids in care.

This post, fea­tur­ing Chero­kee Nation’s Het­tie Char­boneau, high­lights how the sov­er­eign trib­al gov­ern­ment has worked with Casey to improve its fos­ter par­ent recruit­ment and reten­tion efforts. Char­boneau has served in the Chero­kee Nation’s child wel­fare unit for 26 years and over­sees its fos­ter care and adop­tion pro­grams in the state of Okla­homa and beyond.

Q: How did you begin your work to recruit more fos­ter and adop­tive families?

Char­boneau: Meet­ing with the Casey Foundation’s experts made a big dif­fer­ence for us. Togeth­er, we held train­ings on how to recruit fam­i­lies for the groups of chil­dren our unit has tra­di­tion­al­ly had a hard­er time find­ing homes for — such as sib­lings and teenagers.

With Casey’s help, we found new ways to reach peo­ple. For exam­ple, we could con­duct inter­views with these kids or write spot­lights on them that would be fea­tured in the local paper.

We also learned effec­tive ways to keep fos­ter fam­i­lies engaged and up to date on things that might impact them, like pol­i­cy changes. Recruit­ing fam­i­lies was one thing — but retain­ing them was anoth­er. The Casey Foun­da­tion gave us the tools we need­ed to keep the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open and keep fam­i­lies long term.

Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen through your reforms?

Char­boneau: Casey helped us see where we need­ed improve­ments in our sys­tem but also rein­forced the things that we were already doing right. At the end of the day, we real­ized that we didn’t want to enable our fam­i­lies and make them depen­dent — we want­ed to help them become self-suf­fi­cient and strong. The Casey Foun­da­tion helped us learn how to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er and how to imple­ment the prop­er prac­tices for our staff mem­bers and our families.

Q: How is the Chero­kee Nation’s approach dif­fer­ent from OK DHS’s?

Char­boneau: I start­ed out my career at OK DHS and am still grate­ful for that expe­ri­ence. It gave me the foun­da­tion I need­ed to excel in this work. But, when I came to the Chero­kee Nation, I felt like I was home. I was among my people.

Unlike the state — that sim­ply needs to recruit and cer­ti­fy fam­i­lies for all kids in fos­ter care — our goal at Chero­kee Nation is keep our kids with their peo­ple. Fam­i­lies must be cer­ti­fied through the Chero­kee Nation if they want to fos­ter a Chero­kee child. This is so that fam­i­lies have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn the ways of our cul­ture and be able to weave them into every­day life for their kids. We don’t want our kids to for­get their roots or her­itage. So, even if a fam­i­ly is cer­ti­fied through OK DHS, they must still earn a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion through Chero­kee Nation.

Q: How did Chero­kee Nation’s rela­tion­ship improve with OK DHS?

Char­boneau: Our com­mu­ni­ca­tion improved dra­mat­i­cal­ly. And, more impor­tant­ly, our out-of-dis­trict staffers who mon­i­tor court cas­es for Chero­kee chil­dren in any judi­cial sys­tem across the U.S. ben­e­fit­ed from the train­ing pro­vid­ed to OK DHS. They picked up even more tips and skills in addi­tion to the train­ings held with our child wel­fare unit. The biggest shift I saw was in the way we were regard­ed by OK DHS at nation­al con­fer­ences. There was more open­ness and a will­ing­ness to learn about our strug­gles — strug­gles that many OK DHS staffers didn’t know existed.

Q: How do you immerse Chero­kee chil­dren in their culture?

Char­boneau: Around 2007, 2008, we start­ed a cul­ture camp.” Geared toward Chero­kee kids in fos­ter care and their fam­i­lies, the camp lasts a few days and is meant to teach the kids about the out­doors through a Chero­kee cul­tur­al lens. It’s a time for fam­i­lies to bond and for the com­mu­ni­ty to come togeth­er so that the chil­dren can appre­ci­ate and respect their roots.

Q: What changes when your work extends beyond Oklahoma?

Char­boneau: With our child welfare’s out-of-dis­trict unit, we mon­i­tor court cas­es involv­ing chil­dren in the fos­ter care sys­tem that fall out­side of the juris­dic­tion­al bound­aries of the Chero­kee Nation in Okla­homa. Chil­dren mon­i­tored by this unit must be of Chero­kee her­itage. They must be involved in a state court out­side of the Chero­kee Nation’s juris­dic­tion. Cas­es are cov­ered from all over — lit­er­al­ly! From Mex­i­co to Cana­da, east to west. As long as the child is Cherokee.

Lis­ten an inter­view about the well-being of Amer­i­can Indi­an kids and fam­i­lies on Casey’s podcast

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