Hoopa Valley Tribe, Humboldt County Sign Historic Child Welfare MOU/Protocol

On December 7th, 2018 the California’s Hoopa Valley Tribal Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding between the Hoopa Valley Tribe and the County of Humboldt by and through its Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Division (Parties). On February 5, 2019 the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors approved this Government to Government Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).[1] This is one of the first child welfare specific MOUs to be passed by a local government and a Native American tribe.

The negotiation of the MOU is an accomplishment of a 2018 agreement between Humboldt County and the California Attorney General. In February 2018 Humboldt County’s Department of Health and Human Services and Humboldt County’s Sheriff’s Office stipulated to a judgment, agreeing to corrective actions aimed at reforming the County’s handling of reports of child abuse and/or neglect.

“While tribal children represented seven  percent of the total make-up of children in Humboldt County, they represented approximately 38 percent of the foster care population of Humboldt County Child Welfare Services.”

– California Department of Social Services, 2015

The judgment, available for download at the California Attorney General’s website, gives special attention to tribal children and tribal collaboration, with a specific requirement for development of protocols “governing the process for collaboration that will ensure timely, shared decision-making relating to cases involving tribal children.” The Attorney General’s investigation of Humboldt County began in 2015 and “revealed that Defendants (Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and Department of Health and Human Services) had not sufficiently complied with their legal duties to respond to reports of child abuse and neglect, resulting in reports falling through the cracks and widespread distrust within the community.”[2]  Similarly, on May 26, 2017 the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury released a report on Humboldt County’s Child Welfare Services with findings similar to the Attorney General’s. The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) serves as the Compliance Monitor for the judgment and on December 14, 2018, released the first report on the County’s progress in performing corrective actions.

The purpose of a requirement for a government to government protocol or MOU in the stipulated judgment is to increase collaboration and information-sharing between the County and Tribes in cases involving tribal children. Implementing the MOU, paying closer attention to tribal children and their families, may also help decrease the overrepresentation of tribal children in foster care and safely maintain them in their homes. The MOU seeks to increase understanding about the ways in which the public child protection system should effectively partner with Tribe’s Indian Child Welfare programs. In addition to the broad protections reflected in the protocol, there is a dispute resolution process available should a jurisdictional disagreement occur between the Hoopa Valley Tribe and the Humboldt County Child Welfare Services.

California is subject to Public Law 280, giving states extensive legal authority over tribal lands, and even though the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) has been in place since 1978, a state or county child welfare system can overwhelm a Tribal Council’s child protection goals, if such agreements or protocols are not in place. Federal law requires that states consult and work collaboratively with Tribes. Protocols offer additional direction for workers as well as opportunities for increased system level transparency, accountability, and collaboration with tribal partners.

This history making protocol will protect Native American families, children, and cultural values of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, which are at the very core of their Tribal Sovereignty and Tribal Governance. Under the terms of the judgment, the County will seek to negotiate MOUs with the remaining seven tribes or Rancherias in Humboldt County in 2019 and 2020.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe and Humboldt County MOU highlights five specific areas:

  1. Recognizing that the purpose of the Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”) is to protect the future and integrity of Native American Tribes and their children, the Parties are committed to a collaborative process intended to prevent the breakup of Native American families in Humboldt County: The MOU outlines expectations for collaboration and demonstration of respect for tribal sovereignty, law, culture, knowledge of tribal staff, to include social workers and elders.
  2. Recognizing that the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act (25 U.S.C. Sec 3201 et seq.) mandates (1) greater coordination between law enforcement and child protection agencies serving Native children on tribal lands; and (2) improved reporting standards before and during investigations of alleged child abuse and neglect involving Native children on tribal lands: The MOU outlines expectations for mandated reporting to CWS; sharing details of referrals; jointly completing hotline tools to determine whether to respond and the timing of a response; and CWS and the Hoopa Valley Tribe sharing reports and records. CWS and the Hoopa Valley Tribe have also agreed to communicate about permission to enter the Hoopa Valley Reservation to conduct investigation, and coordinate and document investigation activities.
  3. Recognizing that the Parties are committed to establishing and maintaining a mutually supportive, respectful, and cooperative working relationship, and further make a firm commitment to fostering open communication and information-sharing with regard to Hoopa Valley Tribe children and families:The MOU outlines expectations for a Hoopa Valley Tribe representative to participate in CWS Child and Family Team meetings, incorporating Hoopa Valley Tribe recommendations into a case plan, and, if needed, the selection of expert witnesses designated by the Hoopa Valley Tribe.
  4. The Parties have entered into negotiations on a government-to-government basis to address issues pertaining to the Indian Child Welfare Act and affirm that this MOU is based upon fundamental principles of Tribal sovereignty: The MOU outlines expectations for making active efforts to prevent the breakup of an Indian family, giving Hoopa Valley the opportunity to recommend culturally appropriate services available through Hoopa Valley Tribe Child and Family Services or other Indian social services agencies or providers.
  5. The Parties have established a framework for collaborative intervention, cross reporting of cases, and transfer of jurisdiction so that the purposes of ICWA can be accomplished: The MOU outlines expectations for collaborative work with families including completing assessment tools, making recommendations to Family Court, sharing records and progress reports, and giving Hoopa Valley notice when conducting unannounced contacts with families on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.

The MOU also outlines expectations for CWS to provide education and training opportunities to Hoopa Valley Tribe child and family service personnel, Tribal police officers and staff, Tribal leaders, and Tribal foster parents.

As the former Director of Humboldt County’s Child Welfare Services, Stephanie Weldon, stated “Our goal should be to use the stipulated judgment to jumpstart long lasting change to our systems, not just meet the agreements over the three years of the judgment.”[3] This Government to Government MOU is an important step towards creating the long lasting change and systemic improvements sought by stakeholders in Humboldt County.

Arthur Argomaniz is a Program & Research Associate at CSSP and a member of CSSP’s Humboldt County Monitoring Team

Olin C. Jones is a Tribal Consultant engaged by Humboldt County pursuant to the CA AG v. Humboldt County DHHS and Sheriff’s Office stipulated judgment and a member of the Chickasaw Nation

[1] The MOU is effective for two years as of 2/5/19, can be extended for an additional term of two years upon written agreement of the parties, and can be terminated by either party upon 90 days written notice. A copy of the MOU can be found at: https://humboldt.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3851907&GUID=0B99A498-1319-4FB8-A497-C5124C3263EB&Options=&Search=

[2] Filed Complaint from CA Attorney General: https://oag.ca.gov/system/files/attachments/press_releases/Filed%20Complaint_0.pdf

[3] Stephanie Weldon served as Director of Humboldt County’s Child Welfare Services from September 2017 to January 2019 and assisted in the development of the MOU. She now serves as Director of Tribal Social Services for the Yurok Tribe.