Image via the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria Tribal Government Facebook page.

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A local Native American tribe is suing Humboldt County and the State of California, alleging that government employees have routinely cut off foster care benefits to young tribe members prematurely, depriving them of access to housing, education, medical treatment and other necessities.

The suit, which was filed on behalf of the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria by the law firm of Jenner and Block and the California Tribal Families Coalition, says young tribe members have often been excluded from foster care benefits after turning 18, despite the fact that they remained eligible for those benefits until leaving foster care or aging out of California’s Extended Foster Care program at age 21. 

“These eligible American Indian youths are already a vulnerable population and Defendants’ actions stripping them of much needed programs have exacerbated that vulnerability,” the suit says, adding that tribe members who’ve aged out of foster care are at increased risk of homelessness, unemployment, low educational attainment and early or unintended pregnancies.

A young Bear River Tribe member named Madison Fisher is named as a plaintiff in the case. According to the complaint, Fisher applied for extended foster care benefits when she turned 18 and was initially told that she was eligible. 

However, a few months after moving into county-managed housing, the suit says, “Humboldt County changed its mind unilaterally and stripped Plaintiff Fisher of her eligibility for the 18 and Over Program due to her receipt of tribal distributions.”

As with many tribes, enrolled Bear River members receive financial distributions (e.g., gaming or trust funds) after turning 18, and according to the suit, the county determined that these payments rendered Fisher ineligible for foster care benefits.

Her attorneys say that determination was improper and illegal. They point to federal legislation called the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 and a 2012 state bill called the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, both of which say that young people who remain in foster care shall not have their eligibility questioned or re-assessed simply because they turned 18.

And yet in 2013, the California Department of Social Services [CDSS] issued an “All County Letter” telling local governments that “Indian youth must still meet the financial Aid to Families with Dependent Children-Foster Care (AFDC-FC) eligibility requirements.”

“As a result,” the lawsuit says, “CDSS regularly conducted redeterminations of eligibility on non-minor youth of the [Bear River] Tribe entering the 18 and Over Program even though they had never left the foster care program.”

Fisher was one such youth, and the suit says she “suffered tremendous loss” that was exacerbated by having her foster care benefits improperly cut off. 

“As she turned 18, without ever having left the foster care program, Plaintiff Fisher continued to need additional support, including financial and emotional support that under federal law was guaranteed,” the suit says.

She was given a week to vacate the housing that had been arranged for her by the county, and the county then “threatened to remove her by force using a police escort if she did not leave her home,” according to the suit. “At the time of this eviction, she had nowhere to go and could not bring necessities with her.”

Fisher’s tribal distribution payments also made her ineligible for food assistance, and after her eviction she struggled to find housing and pay her bills with her savings and unemployment benefits.

“Plaintiff Fisher faced significant substance and mental health issues at this time,” the lawsuit says. “The abrupt eviction and elimination of her primary income left Plaintiff Fisher vulnerable to depression, homelessness, and relapse given her history of substance abuse. She even made an attempt to end her life.”

According to the complaint, the state has acknowledged the error of its ways and vowed to issue new program guidance to county governments, but the California Department of Social Services has made only “nominal efforts to re-enroll American Indian youth who remain eligible” and has taken “no steps” to redress the harm suffered by youth who lost years of benefits to which they were entitled.

The suit, which names as a co-defendant Connie Beck, director of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, seeks damages in an amount to be determined at trial, plus attorneys’ fees, declaratory relief and corrective actions. 

Asked for comment, county spokesperson Catarina Gallardo sent the Outpost the following statement:

The Department of Health and Human Services cares deeply for all children and youth it serves. These matters are important issues for the county, and we take them very seriously. However, this is now a legal matter, and we want to preserve the integrity of that process. As such we will not be able discuss this further with the press at this time.

Earlier today, the plaintiffs issued the following press release:

With pro bono support from Jenner & Block, the California Tribal Families Coalition (CTFC) and Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria filed a lawsuit this week against Humboldt County and the State of California for discriminatory treatment of tribal foster youth.

The litigation targets Humboldt County’s practice of improperly denying resources to tribal youth after they leave the foster care system at age 18. Tribal youth are the only group of foster youth being denied these resources by the County.

“Native children are already overrepresented in the foster care system in Humboldt County. Adding to this inequity, Humboldt County instituted an improper policy that specifically singles out and denies tribal youth the supportive services that other foster youth receive to help them transition to independent living when they turn 18 years old,” said Chairperson Josefina Frank of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria.

“Humboldt County officials have ignored our communications for eight months seeking to reverse this discriminatory practice, leaving us with no option but to file a lawsuit to compel the County to provide tribal youth the support they have been promised,” said Kimberly Cluff, Legal Director for the California Tribal Families Coalition.

Studies show that former foster youth are at dramatically higher risk for suicide, homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse and pregnancy in comparison to non-foster youth. Social services agencies and advocates determined that abruptly cutting off support resources to foster youth when they turn 18 exacerbated these outcomes.

In response, California and other states created programs to provide ongoing resources to assist foster youth in their transition to independent living, which have shown to improve outcomes for this vulnerable population.

Humboldt County provides these extended resources to foster youth from other groups but has enacted a specific policy that improperly denies tribal youth access to these resources. The County’s action appeared to be based on an erroneous 2013 direction from the State of California, which was subsequently rescinded after the state determined it was discriminatory. However, the state has not taken action to require Humboldt County to follow the law and end this discriminatory practice.

The complaint was filed in Humboldt County Superior Court in Eureka, CA.

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DOCUMENT: Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria and Madison Fisher v. California Department of Social Services; Humboldt County; DHHS; Connie Beck and Does 1 through 25.