Courtesy Jason Abram/Chief Leschi Schools
Student Jordan Stearns works independently at the Chief Leschi Schools.

Shutdown Puts American Indian Children in the Crosshairs

Tanya H. Lee

Three children from the Spirit Lake Tribe will not be reconciling with their mom this week because the Bureau of Indian Affairs social worker required to be present at a custody hearing on Friday had been furloughed. A boy from the Crow Tribe with a rare form of cancer can expect his parents to be with him at the hospital for just one month of his six-month treatment regime because the tribe’s medical assistance program does not anticipate having enough money to keep them in a Ronald McDonald House any longer.

As the federal government shutdown enters its ninth day, most American Indian tribes are keeping their programs afloat on carryover funds, so the individual casualties still stand out.

But if the shutdown continues beyond two or three weeks, the health and education of American Indian children could suffer substantial setbacks.

National Indian Education Association Executive Director Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee, explains that the U.S. Department of Education is still meeting its funding obligations and Bureau of Indian Education schools are up and running. However, with 90 percent of Education and a third of BIA employees furloughed, future funding is in jeopardy.

Brandon Lunak, superintendent of the Waubun Ogema School District on the White Earth Reservation, says his district gets 15 percent of its funding through Impact Aid, a federal program to compensate school districts for property taxes they cannot collect because they are on or near federal land. He was planning to send in an early payment request at the beginning of November, but there is no one at DOE to help prepare the application, or to approve it. “The federal government is balancing its budget on the backs of the schools and kids who need the funds the most,” he says.

Mahnomen Public School District Superintendent Jeff Bisek says, “Most federal programs have forward funding, but not Impact Aid. We’re waiting to see if there will be a continuing resolution or allocations for the program,” which accounts for 20 percent of his district’s budget.

A third-grader in the Mahnomen Public School District shows dad her reading program. (Courtesy Mahnomen Elementary Principal Jacob Melby)

“In December and January, we put together a budget for next year. We have to make decisions about staff and contracts,” a task that is virtually impossible without technical assistance from DOE.

Bryan Jernigan, communications director for the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, says, “If government stays shut down into November, many schools will see a cash flow shortage because Impact Aid is not coming in.” This will pose significant problems for schools, especially Indian lands schools.”

The impacts of the shutdown on schools still reeling from the cuts imposed in March as a result of sequestration, and the possibility that another eight-percent sequestration cut will go into effect next year, could be devastating. Education programs for Native American children, says Rose, “cannot survive a funding delay.”

RELATED: Every Child Left Behind: Sequester Guts Indian Education, Part 1

Head Start for American Indian children could take a major hit. Twenty-three Head Start programs, those with funding cycles beginning October 1, have closed or reduced services already, affecting some 7,000 children. None of those were Indian Head Start programs, but, says Rose, there are Native programs with grant cycles beginning November 1, and they would be affected if the shutdown continues. For those that stay open, there is the question of whether USDA will continue to reimburse food costs for the children, according to Amy LaPointe, director of the Winnebago Native American Head Start. Her program’s funding cycle begins December 1, so she expects the program, which serves 90 children, will be okay until then.

Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, says the tribe is not severely impacted yet because the majority of its programs are exempt from the shutdown and those that are not exempt are operating on carryover funds. If the shutdown continues, “some smaller programs might run into a funding crunch. We would assess the program and figure out what to do based on how important the program is to the Navajo people. We would give priority to those that provide direct services, such as the food distribution program.”

Chickasaw Nation Head Start class from 2011.

Right now, he says, the simple fact that there is no one at the BIA to work on housing and business projects means behind-the-scenes work is backing up. “We’re working without the full collaboration of the federal government. It’s like playing a doubles tennis match and having your doubles partner disappear. The longer this goes on, deeper the holes are going to get. It will take time to return to normal.”

According to the National Indian Health Board, the Indian Health Service continues to operate, though it is short-staffed, but IHS is not providing funds to tribes or urban Indian health centers. “For both direct service Tribes and those operating their own programs, this means that there will be no additional funds to continue to provide health care until Congress passes a CR [continuing resolution].

Shannon Plainstapher Bradley, assistant director of Health and Human Services for the Crow Tribe, says all of the tribe’s 638 programs are running on carryover funds with very few personnel. Many of those programs, she says, are critical for children. The social services department “is pretty crucial to the sustainability of kids’ lives, whether or not they will be in a court system, placed back at home or be in a foster care unit.” The tribe had to furlough its entire social services administration department, keeping just one case worker and one social worker on board. “We also have a family preservation program to help prevent the breakup of high-risk families.” That program has been cut back.

The Boys and Girls Clubs, “a safe place where kids can go after school, help with homework and positive interactions with adults,” are being staffed by volunteers on a restricted schedule. “But we can’t keep the doors open too long because the bills have to be paid," Bradley says.

“We’re going on our second week of the furlough, so we’re really feeling the crunch. We can operate at this level for maybe a month,” Bradley says. And even if the shutdown ended today, it would still take a few weeks to get funds, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, in the bank and out to families, says Bradley. That concern is widespread. No matter what happens now, the shutdown will have a lasting impact on American Indian children.

The federal government has been partially shut down since October 1 when Congress could not agree on a budget for 2014 and refused to pass a continuing resolution to keep things going while negotiations went forward. Entitlement programs, such as Medicaid and Social Security, are not affected, but discretionary spending, which requires annual Congressional appropriations and includes programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the free and reduced-price school lunch program, have been cut back or eliminated.

Congress also must agree to raise the debt ceiling (the amount of money the federal government is allowed to borrow) by October 17 if the government is going to keep paying its bills. Failure to raise the debt ceiling could affect all government programs, including entitlements, and lead to another recession.