The Port Gamble S'Klallam is the first Native-American tribe in the nation to start running all of its child guardianships, foster care and adoptions. The agreement with the federal government essentially severed any oversight by the state Department of Social and Health Services.

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KINGSTON, Kitsap County — Jessie Scheibner’s eyes cloud with tears and her voice trembles as she talks about the day, almost 70 years ago, when a stranger’s car pulled up to her parents’ home on the Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation and took her and her two sisters away.

The memories of that car ride when she was 3 and the years spent in one foster home after another are hazy. Foster care was difficult enough, but Scheibner, now 72, clearly recalls being ashamed of her dark hair, brown skin and Native American roots as she bounced from home to home off the reservation.

She eventually was reunited with her mother and her sisters when she was 7, but the emotional scars remain.

For decades, children who were removed from their homes in child-welfare cases among the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and other tribes across the United States were taken off their reservations and placed in the homes of nontribal members. Because individual states handled child-welfare issues for Native-American tribes, including foster care, abused and neglected children were forced to leave their communities and, often, their cultures.

That ended when Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, requiring nearly all Native American children who were taken out of their homes by social-services officials to be placed with relatives or other tribal members. Though the children would remain in state care, a strong focus of the law was keeping Native American families, and tribes, together.

But the Port Gamble S’Klallam were determined to do what had never been done before: Gain complete control over the welfare of their own children.

Late last year, with little fanfare, the 1,000-member tribe became the first in the nation to assume all control of its guardianships, foster care and adoptions. Under an agreement with the federal government, the tribe essentially severed the oversight by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and became solely responsible for its child-welfare cases.

To get there, Jolene George spent the past decade working alongside DSHS, the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the state Attorney General’s Office and tribal lawyers to draft policies on how they would handle child-welfare protocols — all elements listed under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act.

George, who is the Port Gamble S’Klallam’s children and families coordinator, said she kept stories like Scheibner’s in mind.

“We will no longer lose our children,” George said. “We didn’t do this with a grant. We put our efforts, our money and whatever we could to do this.”

Francine Swift, a member of the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribal council, said it’s vital to have children stay on the reservation so they don’t forget their ancestry and traditions. She said that before the Indian Child Welfare Act, children were adopted out never learning who their parents were.

“We never want to see our kids go through this again,” Swift said.

For many, the practice of removing from reservations children in child-welfare cases hearkened to the infamous boarding-school era, when the federal government forcibly placed tribal children in harsh, militarylike institutions to assimilate them into the dominant culture. The schools slowly started to change in the 1930s, but they have been blamed for emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually damaging many who were sent there, eventually prompting a public apology by the secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Empowerment

Nearly a dozen tribes across the country are inching toward having their own independent child-welfare operations, said Jack Trope, executive director at the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that works closely with tribes across the nation.

“The purpose is to better empower the tribes to meet the needs of their kids and their neediest of families,” Trope said.

Because of the Port Gamble S’Klallam’s efforts, the tribe has become a model for other tribes. From the Navajo to the Suquamish, tribes have reached out to the Port Gamble S’Klallam to ask for guidance in how to achieve the same autonomy, George said.

In 2008, Congress passed legislation allowing tribes to establish and oversee guardianships, foster care and adoptions if they meet criteria established by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Trope said. Under Title IV-E, Health and Human Services offered $187 million to support adoption-assistance and foster-care programs in the United States.

“It’s been a difficult process for some tribes because it’s a mutual learning curve: the tribes learning more about Title IV-E and the federal government learning more about how to implement this,” Trope said. “As a tribe you have to decide that you’re ready, willing and able to handle federal requirements. We have many tribes who are watching Port Gamble.”

With such a complex and detailed list of requirements, Trope said he’s not surprised it took three years for a tribe to gain federal approval. Tribes must have a protocol for taking children into protective custody, have an established court system and have administrative staff dedicated to child protective services.

Trope said many tribes have been operating some form of child-welfare system since the late 1970s, but funding has been an issue. Tribes, he said, would “cobble” together funds, relying mostly on state money and federal grants.

Tribes that meet the guidelines will receive federal funding under Title IV-E program, he said.

Colleen Cawston, the senior director of Indian policy at DSHS, said that state welfare agencies have always directly accessed Title IV-E funds designated to care for Native American children. The funding has traditionally gone from the feds to the state, then to the tribes, she said.

Once a tribe receives federal approval, the funds will bypass the state and go directly to them, Cawston added.

Cawston said DSHS will still be available to offer assistance to the tribe, but DSHS no longer has a role with the placement of the tribe’s children, case planning, guardianships and adoptions.

On Thursday, the Port Gamble S’Klallam will host state and federal leaders for a ceremony commemorating the tribe’s landmark achievement in gaining autonomy in child-welfare issues.

“Preserving families”

Down a narrow hallway, just beyond the Port Gamble S’Klallam Police Department and court operations, the tribe’s children’s administration staffers duck in and out of their offices. In the three months since the tribe was granted authority to handle guardianships, foster care and adoptions, the staff has remained in close contact with DSHS, George said.

Twenty-eight children on the reservation are being monitored in out-of-home placements, either living with relatives or other tribal members, George said. The first preference is placing a child with a relative, and the goal is always to reunite child and parents.

Juanita Holtyn, a 42-year-old tribal member, said she has raised her 4-year-old granddaughter, Aaliyah, for three years.

Her son, the girl’s father, is in prison, and the girl’s mother lives elsewhere in Kitsap County and plays no role in the child’s life. The tribe has designated Holtyn as Aaliyah’s foster mother.

“We’re lucky to have this program in the tribe to keep our families together. We’re preserving families,” Holtyn said, who hopes to reunite Aaliyah with her father once he is released from prison.

Scheibner, who was taken from her parents when she was 3, didn’t return to the Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation until she was 18. During a recent ceremony honoring her and other tribal elders, she was surrounded by her five children, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

She recalled her childhood with anger, saying nobody should endure what she did.

“I just existed. Nobody cuddled me, nobody would play with me. Back then there was a lot of racism. Me and my sister were the only Indians around at schools. We were the darkest around, and they wouldn’t play with us. They wouldn’t let us get on the slide or anything,” she said.

Even after Scheibner was reunited with her mother and other sisters when she was 7, she found they had little in common. She never fully bonded with her mother, whose children were taken from her when she was placed in a sanitarium to be treated for tuberculosis.

“I’m a strong believer that kids need to be with their own relatives,” she said. “I don’t want any other child to feel abandoned and not loved. … No child should feel bad for what color they are.”

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.