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

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

“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

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

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.

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