Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Creating better opportunities for Cherokee families to foster

Cherokee Nation has a strong Indian Child Welfare program, and we have always emphasized the importance of protecting our children. The month of May is Foster Awareness Month nationwide, and it’s important to highlight the work of our tribe’s child welfare workers and so many caring Cherokee foster parents.

At this time, we are working cases on approximately 1,612 children here in Oklahoma and throughout the United States. We have almost as many cases here in our jurisdiction as we do outside it---716 children inside the 14-county jurisdiction and 896 outside the jurisdiction. Our tribal citizenship is the largest in America, and those numbers reflect the number of Cherokee children in need. 

 Although we have had a slow and steady increase in foster homes, it is still not near enough to have every one of our Cherokee youth in a Native home. Two years ago we only had 17 regular foster homes, and today we now have 46 who regularly step up to foster Cherokee children in need. However, we need more homes.  A decent number of our children are placed with relatives, and a high percentage of those children are in non-Native foster homes. 

Those kids in non-Native homes who do not reunify with their family or are placed with another Native family become eligible to be adopted by the family they are placed with. To put that into perspective, if 400 Cherokee children are in non-Native homes this year and a non -Native family adopts them, we lose 400 children. If you magnify that even more, in a 10-year span, we risk losing 4,000 Cherokee children. 

 The importance of placing Cherokee children in Cherokee fosters homes is vital. Children deserve the right to grow up in a safe, loving environment, and they deserve the right to maintain their tribal ties to Cherokee values and lifeways.

Our goal is to have more foster homes waiting on children than we have children waiting on homes. Unfortunately, I do not see our Indian Child Welfare department ever working themselves out of a job. We have a long way to go, but I can see progress happening in this area, especially in the past decade.  We have worked aggressively with state agencies and continue to collaborate with the faith community to address this need.

Taking it a step further, Cherokee Nation employees will soon be able to use family leave time when accepting an ICW foster placement. A lack of workplace support should not be a reason families close their homes to foster children. Cherokee Nation is one of the only employers in Oklahoma and across Indian Country to enact a progressive policy enabling a family to address the unique issues with foster care: the required doctor appointments, school transfers or daycare placements, and essential bonding time. If the foster parents are unable to take time off, it compromises our employees’ personal leave and paycheck and compromises our Cherokee children receiving the best care.

Cherokee culture and values teach us that we belong to each other, and we have a responsibility to take care of our children and support the adults who are caring for them. Our children deserve a permanent, safe home life.  Cherokee Nation’s ICW team works to create that for our children, and foster parenting must be supported in the workplace. 

The very best thing for our children is reunification with their parents or placed with family. If family is not possible, then it is our duty and privilege as a tribal family to step forward and care for our Cherokee children. We all come from one fire. Our ancestors often did this without hesitation when children lost their family during the Trail of Tears and the rebuilding of our tribal society here in Oklahoma. One fact is true then and true today: Children are sacred, and their care is a shared responsibility. 

If you have ever considered the path of foster care or are interested in helping in other ways, please contact Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare at 918-458-6900 or visit  www.cherokeekids.org.    

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Cherokee Nation supports area families through Oklahoma Messages Project

In Oklahoma, we have a crisis within our judicial and prison system. Oklahoma is the female-incarceration capital of the country, with twice as many imprisoned as other states. Native women represent 13 percent of the prison population, and across the country, the incarceration rate of Indian women is 38 percent higher than the national average.

Sadly, here in Oklahoma the majority of women are in jail for nonviolent drug crimes. This alarming number of imprisoned women means thousands of Oklahoma children are without their mothers. To keep families better connected and healthier, Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses have collaborated with the Oklahoma Messages Project, a nonprofit that serves the vulnerable children of the incarcerated.

The Oklahoma Messages Project is making a difference in the lives of innocent kids. Our financial support allows the organization to film parents in prison reading books to their children. During Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, parents read books to their children and share personal messages. Children receive the videos, along with the book their parent read on tape, so families can share a moment and a book together.

I am proud of this effort because it is improving relationships, boosting literacy and building self-esteem for both ends of the family unit: parent and child. A loving message and story time with Mom or Dad remind kids they are loved. Obviously, with a parent away, kids are more vulnerable to substance abuse and academic failure. We are able to help break a spiraling cycle through this effective prevention and literacy program that makes a positive difference in kids’ lives. Without intervention and prevention programs, children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to become inmates themselves.

Another Cherokee Nation partner, New Hope Oklahoma, also serves children with parents in prison. New Hope programs include summer camps, after-school programs, weekend retreats, family gatherings and case management tools. CNB partners with multiple nonprofit agencies that share a common goal of helping Oklahoma women and their families with the struggle and effects of addiction, as well as criminal justice system challenges.

We can and we must do better for our citizens in Oklahoma. We must improve the processes and make the conditions better so that women are not saddled with unfair and long-term prison sentences, which create depression, anger and anxiety. That means better education opportunities, better mental health services and more chances for economic security with access to health insurance.

Cherokee Nation also has an award-winning reintegration program called Coming Home. The program helps former prisoners get back on their feet upon release, including help with jobs and housing. It is one of the most progressive reintegration programs not only in Oklahoma, but across Indian Country.

We cannot just give up on people and families because of incarceration. Children especially need the nurturing and stability programs that Oklahoma Messages Project and New Hope Oklahoma work to provide each and every day. 

All these partners and organizations share a common goal: make kids a priority and ensure they are not forgotten within this crisis. We cannot expect children to rise above the hardships of their parents’ mistakes if we, as a community, do not lend them the tools and support necessary to do so.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Cherokee Nation’s collaboration with Junior Achievement increases financial literacy

The Cherokee Nation has a long history of being a leader in education. We keep that tradition alive and well by forging new partnerships. One of the most successful collaborations we have is with Junior Achievement of Oklahoma.

For years, as individuals, Cherokees have been involved with Junior Achievement and teaching young people about work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy. In 2011, we initiated a more formal partnership through Cherokee Nation Foundation and Cherokee Nation Businesses. In the last six years, we have helped almost 11,000 students, 525 classes, more than 60 schools and more than 280 teachers get the unique and educational exposure JA offers.

Recently, we were recognized by Junior Achievement for the positive work we have done together. Our goal is to prepare Cherokees and other students in northeast Oklahoma for the real world and encourage them to dream big. Like Cherokee Nation’s economic impact, this education effort benefits all Oklahomans, not just Cherokees.

Together, Cherokee Nation and Junior Achievement are working hard to elevate and not leave behind rural and underserved schools. Through our partnership with Junior Achievement, we are not just educating Cherokees, we are helping Junior Achievement reach a new demographic in rural northeast Oklahoma. Educational and informative workshops help youth develop an understanding of our economy and help them to start planning early.

Cherokee Nation was the first tribe to set up a commercial space in JA Biztown – a kid-sized replicate of a bustling city. We also sponsor classrooms from within the Cherokee Nation to attend.  Students complete an in-class curriculum pertaining to all aspects of business and industry prior to their visit. Once they arrive at the facility, they apply what they’ve learned in the hands-on setting, working various jobs and making financial decisions. 

These programs would not be as successful as they are without the volunteers from Cherokee Nation, Cherokee Nation Businesses and the local communities. Our employees embody the inspiration and excellence we strive for every day. They lead by example. All of our volunteers are dedicated and passionate about making a positive impact in our communities. They made it a mission to improve the lives of people here in Oklahoma. The real reward of being a volunteer for Junior Achievement is the personal satisfaction that naturally comes with increased engagement in a child’s future. The greatest thing we can do for our children is educate them, which is a serious responsibility.

Cherokee Nation will continue to team with Junior Achievement and support its mission. We appreciate the opportunity to work with a national organization that prioritizes innovative learning. Our kids are learning financial literacy, yes, but we also hope to spark an interest in Cherokee culture and a true sense of community.  Developing the next generation of business leaders is an important business initiative. Through Junior Achievement, we can better teach personal finance, community participation and the growing global marketplace.