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Embedding support in all you do: 5 ways tribes can support resource families from first engagement

A grandfather smiles as his granddaughter sits on his shoulders
A grandfather smiles as his granddaughter sits on his shoulders

Resource family recruitment is an important part of a tribal child welfare program. Having tribally-approved resource homes provides a more direct cultural connection for children in foster care. Tribally-approved resource parents have the unique privilege to assist in connecting Native American children to their tribal cultures and identities. 

But, as we recruit families, we must proactively support the families we’ve recruited. 

When you think of support for foster, adoptive, and kinship families, you may think of services that only happen after a child is placed in a family’s home. But family support should happen every step of the way—from the first inquiry and throughout the family’s experience. 

In this article, you’ll learn how you as a worker in a tribal child welfare agency can support families at every stage, even when you already have a full plate of work. 

This is what it feels like when support falls through the cracks

Having worked in tribal child welfare for many years, and being deeply committed to keeping Indigenous children connected to our cultures, I decided to become a foster parent myself. While exploring tribal agencies to work with, I was drawn to one tribe because their social media posts highlighted the value they placed in supporting foster parents. 

Unfortunately, there was a lack of communication once I submitted my application. After a month, they still had not made progress in moving me forward in the approval process. Once I gave up and decided to work with another tribe, I was approved as a tribal foster parent in less than six weeks. 

This experience highlighted for me how frustrating it can be for prospective caregivers. Because of my tribal child welfare experience, I thought I knew what to expect, but I still was left feeling unsupported and unimportant. 

So, let’s talk about some ways we can do better and embed support into every interaction with prospective foster, kinship, and adoptive families.  

1. Provide good customer service during the initial inquiry

The first step in a family’s journey to care for children is reaching out to a tribal child welfare program. 

The first contact a prospective resource family has with a tribal child welfare agency may set the tone for how they experience the inquiry process. Favorable views can be created when there is timely and engaging communication. But if families feel left out of the loop—like I did—they may not follow through with the approval process. It is key to communicate and develop a relationship with families from the moment of first inquiry. 

Think of good customer service as a form of family support.

While some tribes operate with a large child welfare workforce, others find their staff balancing multiple tasks, including case management, resource family recruitment, and grant reporting. As challenging as it may be to juggle responsibilities, there are strategies that can be used to prioritize family support from the beginning.

Make a plan to respond

For tribal child welfare programs that are stretched thin, pulling multiple staff into your response process can be helpful. Given the emergency nature of the work, the people assigned to handle inquiries from prospective caregivers may not always be available to answer questions. Take a look at what an inquiry looks like within your program. 

  • If you mainly speak to potential caregivers on the phone, consider what that experience is like for callers. Does the number they call go directly to a staff member’s line? If so, voicemail messages should share an expected time for a return call to be made. It can also share other helpful information, such as an email address or website contact box where inquiries can be submitted. 
  • If callers reach front desk staff or another staff member, develop cross-training on the home approval processes. This helps increase team members’ abilities to share accurate information and meaningfully engage with families. Create a tips sheet that answers frequently asked questions from prospective resource parents. This helpful tool allows all team members to confidently share accurate and detailed information about what to expect, including information about approval timelines, home study requirements, training schedules, and support services. 
  • Regardless of what process is used, prioritize responding to inquiries by the next business day.
  • Use the resources already at your fingertips. Tribal nations may offer advanced telecommunications services that can help streamline communication. Set up a resource parent inquiry hotline with pre-recorded messages to guide them in the right direction.

Using this integrative approach prevents a lapse in communication while strengthening how team members support each other. There is also value in people with a variety of experiences engaging with prospective families. They can answer questions using their unique perspective with other roles, such as child protection investigations, tribal court advocacy, support of first families, and the importance of maintaining a child’s cultural connections. 

2. Improve the application process

Consider the burden paperwork has on families while looking at your tribe’s application process, especially kinship caregivers who are working to immediately place children in their homes. Curating your application packet to be informative yet simple makes it easiest for applicants to complete and submit required documentation in a timely manner. 

Think about this: What information is most important to assess now? For example, you will want to review the applicants’ criminal and child welfare history at the beginning of the assessment process for safety reasons. The same can be said for gathering information about bedroom space, people living in the home, and financial resources. 

Other documentation can be requested further along in the process, like pet vaccinations or copies of identification cards. While those items will be needed prior to approval, allowing applicants time to gather them later in the process will prevent unnecessary delays in returning paperwork and help the family start their journey sooner.

Streamline documents

Consolidating application paperwork makes the process easier for prospective caregivers. Take a look at the application packet to see if forms can be integrated to reduce repetitive information. For example, rather than having separate forms for financial reporting and placement preferences, incorporate them into the main application form.

It’s also important to consider the accessibility of the paperwork you ask families to complete. What reading level is required to complete the forms? Do prospective caregivers need a computer, tablet, or reliable internet connection to fill out an application? Do they need access to transportation to complete their forms? Try to remove whatever barriers to participation you can. Anticipating these barriers and addressing them is a form of support! 

  • Some applicants prefer to pick up application packets or have them mailed to their homes. Provide the family with a binder and flash drive to provide a way for them to store paper and digital copies of their important documents. Giving families these simple organizational tools helps them stay on track to move forward in the assessment process while also creating a space for documents to be saved for future use.
  • Other applicants may like the efficiency of filling out electronic forms. If your tribe has a case management system or tribal member resource system, consider using it to create a digital application process. 

Strategy from the field: The Citizen Potawatomi Nation mails resource family application packets to interested caregivers using department-branded durable folders families can use to store and organize documents. They provide a pre-paid, labeled envelope to make the return of application paperwork as simple as families walking to their mailbox.

3. Connect with families during pre-service training 

The training process is a great time to further connect with families. If caregivers attend their training through an outside agency, make time to check in after training sessions. It’s likely questions will arise from their learning and connections with other training participants. This is especially important if tribal families need to access training through an agency that is not affiliated with the tribe. As a child welfare worker with tribal expertise, your support will be vital as families encounter experiences that might be less culturally sensitive than if they were provided by the tribe.

When providing training directly to applicants, include tribal culture and agency-specific information in the training sessions. This is your chance to bring in other resource parents who can share their experiences and staff members who can talk about what an investigation looks like or how a case proceeds in court. Intentionally offering this type of support to new resource families offers an opportunity for them to feel a part of the professional team while preparing them with cultural information.

4. Engage with families while they wait for a placement

Keeping resource families engaged while they are wrapping up the approval process and waiting for the placement of children is critical. Families want to feel included and involved, often feeling a sense of urgency to start helping children. 

  • Offer while-you-wait support groups. Hearing the experiences of peer resource parents helps them know their feelings about waiting are valid and a normal part of the caregiving experience. This can help them connect with peers who understand their emotions, learn how to prepare for having a child placed with them, and see the benefits of being part of a support group—both at this phase and once they have a child placed with them. 
  • Provide regular updates about waiting children who are in need of placements. Sharing the current need offers awareness of the common types of placement situations that arise in the community. This can be an eye-opener for those who are very specific about age, gender, and behavioral needs and may cause them to shift their thinking about what children they can best care for.

5. Support tribal cultural integration throughout the process

Tribal nations have vibrant and diverse cultures. Tribal classes, events, and celebrations are key to keeping the traditions of the tribe alive while bringing the community together. Share a calendar of events with families. This may include intertribal powwows, festivals, storytelling, and cultural classes. 

  • If the family is not a part of the tribe or is working on reconnecting to their nation, they may need additional support to feel confident in involving their family and future-custody children in these types of activities. Use cultural guides within the tribal child welfare program to educate families on protocols and what to expect. 
  • If your tribal child welfare program requires yearly training hours, offer credit to families who attend tribal events and cultural classes. 
  • Partner with departments within the tribal nation that focus on the teaching of language, culture, and history. Invite staff to speak at a support group meeting on their topic of expertise. Encourage families to incorporate their learning into the home. This can include sharing cultural stories with children or teaching them a word in their traditional language.

Shifting your approach and organizational culture

Taking an integrated approach to family support may require your tribal agency to shift how you think about support, moving from focusing on completing paperwork and processes to viewing each step in the process as a way to offer connection, support, and education.  

Truly supporting tribal resource families involves providing and encouraging ways to connect their families to cultural teachings and important events. Taking the time to shift into this new way of thinking results in a better experience for families and the children they will care for in the future.

Kendra Lowden

Kendra Lowden

Kendra Lowden is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a descendant of the Osage Nation. She has over a decade of experience in tribal child welfare direct practice, focusing on resource home development and adoption services. She is a graduate of the Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program at AdoptUSKids. Kendra is a doctoral student and her research centers on the impact of agency support and training for transracial foster and adoptive families.