Catherine Begaye and Cynthia Chavers

From left, 2nd Judicial District Children’s Court Judge Marie Ward, Special Master Catherine Begaye and Cynthia Chavers of the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

ALBUQUERQUE — It’s already tough sledding for children and families in New Mexico’s fractured foster care and child welfare systems.

Those challenges are amplified for Native American families, says Cynthia Chavers, an acting field deputy director for the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

“What we hear in child welfare is that it’s really hard for our families to feel like they’re receiving adequate support and services,” Chavers said in January during the annual New Mexico Children’s Law Institute conference. “That challenge is even greater for an Indian family.”

Under the direction of Children, Youth and Families Secretary Brian Blalock, state leaders announced in October the creation of New Mexico’s first Indian Child Welfare Act court. Only the nation’s sixth, the court opened Jan. 1 in the 2nd Judicial District to enforce and adjudicate the 1978 congressional law that requires the placement of Native American foster or adopted youth with Indian families.

About 10 percent of the children in the state’s foster care system fall under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The Children, Youth and Families Department and other community partners contemplated establishing such a court for years, Chavers said at the conference last month. However, caseworker turnover made it difficult to sustain any momentum.

“There wasn’t a lot of support to get it done until recently,” Chavers said.

In 2017, 2nd Judicial District Judge Marie Ward and Catherine Begaye, who is Diné/Navajo, sketched out a blueprint for the specialized court. A November 2018 visit by Judge Katherine Delgado, who helped start an Indian Child Welfare Act court in Adams County, Colo., pushed Ward and Begaye to accelerate the process.

Then, a few months after Blalock’s January 2019 appointment, Children, Youth and Families created an internal, all-Native female team of four caseworkers, a supervisor and two Children’s Court attorneys for the effort.

The team educates other caseworkers, guardians ad litem, lawyers and affiliated parties on the historical and intergenerational trauma that a Native family has experienced.

“They need that expertise and knowledge so that Indian families can receive support,” Chavers said.

Blalock and Indian Child Welfare Act court panelists said they have had positive discussions with tribal communities, such as the Navajo Nation, Santo Domingo Pueblo and Isleta Pueblo.

“In traditional child welfare, it’s a polarized system where you have either your biological family or your foster or adoptive family. In tribal communities, family means something much bigger. We want to bring that concept to this court,” Chavers said.

Begaye says she hopes the court can mimic traditional Native cultural gatherings to buttress tribal-state relationships, which can help improve child well-being outcomes for Indian families.

“A couple of times a year, we want to have celebrations with traditional Native food,” Begaye said. “We want to have the pueblos and the Navajo Nation come to us, but most importantly, we want to have the participants at the table so that they can become more and more knowledgeable about the tribes and pueblos.

“We all have the same goal in mind, which is no matter who the child is, but in particular Indian children, we want better outcomes for them,” she added.

Begaye hopes to help open more such courts throughout the state.

“Our intention is to fulfill the promise of [the Indian Child Welfare Act] and to support the longevity of tribes in recognizing their sovereignty and their vested interest in the most precious resource, the children of the tribe,” she said.

This story is part of a Youth Today project on foster care in New Mexico.

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