Washington Native American Tribes Ask State and Federal Government for Help in Foster Care Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 4/22/2015

Native American tribes in Washington are asking both state and federal governments for help in administering background checks. The tribes are sometimes responsible for placing children in foster families within their communities, and want to make sure that children are going to safe homes. With state and federal background checks, Washington's tribes would be able to screen potential foster families more efficiently and thoroughly than they currently can.

Previously, Washington's Native American tribes had collaborated with the state's Department of Social and Health Services (more specifically, with the Children's Administration, a branch of the DSHS). The Children's Administration was responsible for running criminal checks on foster families being considered by the tribes for child placement. Such placement would be necessary in situations where a child's parents could no longer care for them, whether due to "arrest, injury, or unexpected death," according to a recent report in the Seattle Times.

Essentially, the Children's Administration acted as a middle man between Washington's Native American tribes and the State Patrol. A tribe needing to place a child with a new family would contact the Children's Administration, who would then run background checks through the State Patrol and then return the findings to the tribe in question.

Evidently, though, this practice violated a few federal laws. The State Patrol eventually called an end to it by informing the Children's Administration that they were not permitted to turn over background check findings to Washington's tribes. As a result, the state's Native American community has been left with no recourse for running criminal checks and domestic abuse history searches on potential foster parents. Tribal leaders are not permitted to access state or federal criminal registries themselves, so they are at an impasse of sorts with the emergency child placement program.

This situation illustrates a disconnect that exists between state and federal background check registries, and Native American tribes. Tribal police or tribal leaders are not given the same access to these registries that local governments are, so while tribes are very much self-contained communities, they are not treated that way by most government systems.

The emergency child placement program is just one area where the lack of access to background check information has been problematic for Washington's Native American tribes. Last year, a young man within the tribal community took his gun to school and took four lives, including his own. According to the Seattle Times, the boy's father should never have been able to purchase a firearm, per a "domestic violence protection order" issued by a tribal court. However, since tribal court information is not logged into public records in the way that county court information is, that domestic violence protection order didn't show up on the father's background check, and he was able to purchase a gun as a result.

The bottom line? Counties, states, and Native American tribes need to collaborate more when it comes to criminal records. Washington's tribes clearly need and merit access to criminal and domestic abuse registries, whether for child placement purposes or for other reasons. Counties could also expand their criminal records by recognizing charges laid forth in tribal courts, though it's difficult to say exactly how a blending of those two entities would work without dissolving tribal courts entirely.


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