“You could change somebody’s life”

“You could change somebody’s life”

May is National Foster Care Awareness Month. NAYA’s three foster care programs—Foster Care Support, Pathways to Adulthood, and Sibling and Family Visit Nights—reach local foster youth from birth to age 24, and birth and foster parents. Despite a very small staff and limited resources, NAYA currently works with 85% of the district’s 141 Native American foster youth in care.

Today, there are 440,000 youth in the U.S. foster care system. Statistics show that, nationwide, states place American Indian and Alaska Native children into foster care at a rate 2.7 times greater than the general population. The field of tribal child welfare is notoriously challenging for service providers who work with families. These professionals understand that the need for homes, services, family supports, and resources always far outweigh the resources available, and yet they persevere.

NAYA Foster Care Manager Elisha Big Back, Northern Cheyenne, shares how she approaches the challenges and rewards of her job helping Native foster youth.

How is this work important?
I believe that Native American foster youth are our most vulnerable population. They’re in constant movement. They lack stability and consistency and those are very fundamental things that are going to help them grow and be productive adults. I’m a member of this Portland Native community. I grew up here. My family has been very impacted by the foster care system. I want to be a stable, consistent resource to Native foster youth.

The turnover with DHS case workers is mindboggling. Some of our youth have had so many different service providers that they are very distrusting. They’re just waiting for the next turnover to happen. They become numb to it. At NAYA, we really repeat that NAYA’s not going anywhere—no matter what. We are here to make sure they have someplace stable and supportive to come while they are in care. NAYA is here for them and we’re not going anywhere.

How long does it take to win over their trust?
When I’m here, the youth are my priority and I make sure that they understand that. Youth all come with varying levels of trauma. A lot of them really, really dislike the foster care system but are afraid of life without it. We help them recognize their own skills, their own power, their own strengths, and that they’re the ones moving forward every day.

What would happen if they didn’t have the hope you try to instill?
I feel that hope—whether it’s just navigating the simplest life skill to bigger things—helps them create a stronger sense of self so that they can become more independent.

What is the best part of your job?
Every day is a success! Every day that they show up here is a success! Keeping these relationships and trust going is a success! We have some youth that have transitioned [out of foster care] and are in college. It’s an ongoing journey.

What would you say to someone who is interested in becoming a foster parent but is afraid?
I would say [balance] any concerns that you have [by] considering the world we’re living in today. Stepping up to be a foster parent could impact tomorrow’s leaders. All of the youth in foster care are tomorrow’s something, whether it’s a politician or a doctor or something else. They are all headed that way. What part of that do you want play a part in? You could change somebody’s life, and your own.