Senator Heidi Heitkamp United States Senator for North Dakota

Press Releases

Oct 30 2013

Heitkamp Introduces First Bill As U.S. Senator; Aims To Improve The Lives Of Native American Children

Summary of the Bill and Quotes from North Dakota Tribal Leaders Below

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today introduced her first bill since joining the U.S. Senate, a comprehensive plan to find solutions to the complex challenges facing Native American children in North Dakota and throughout Indian Country.

Heitkamp’s bipartisan bill would create a national Commission on Native American Children to conduct an intensive study into issues facing Native children – such as high rates of poverty, staggering unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and few economic opportunities – and make recommendations on how to make sure Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities to thrive.  

“We have all heard stories or seen first-hand the struggles that too many Native children and their families face from extreme poverty to child abuse to suicide.  Since I’ve been in public office, I’ve worked to address many of these challenges, and I’m proud my first bill as a U.S. Senator will take a serious look at finding solutions to better protect Native children and give them the opportunities they deserve,” said Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Tragically, for children in our nation’s tribal communities, the barriers to success are high and they are the most at-risk population in the country, facing serious disparities in safety, health, and education.

“We need to strive for a day when Native children no longer live in third-world conditions; when they don’t face the threat of abuse on a daily basis; when they receive the good health care and education to help them grow and succeed. However, we don’t just have a moral obligation to fix this, we have treaty and trust responsibilities to do so. The federal government pledged long ago to protect Native families and children. We haven’t lived up to that promise. But we can change that.”

The Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children, named for the former Chairwoman of Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation in North Dakota, and Alaska Native Elder and statesman, respectively, is already being praised by a cross-section of individuals from North Dakota and around the country. All five North Dakota tribes have endorsed the bill and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined Heitkamp in introducing the legislation (quotes from tribal leaders about the bill are below.)

Background:

Conditions for young people in Indian Country are tragic. For example: 

  • 37 percent of Native children live in poverty;
  • Suicide rates for Native children ages 15-24 years old are 2.5 times the national average;
  • High school graduation rate for Native students is around 50 percent, compared to more than 75 percent for white students; and
  • While the overall rate of child mortality in the U.S. has decreased since 2000, the rate for Native children has increased 15 percent.

Tribal governments face numerous obstacles in responding to the needs of Native children. Existing program rules and the volume of resources required to access grant opportunities stymie efforts of tribes to tackle these issues.  At the same time, federal agencies lack clear guidance about the direction that should be taken to best address the needs of Native children in order to fulfill our trust responsibility to tribal nations.

To help reverse these impacts, the Commission on Native Children would conduct a comprehensive study on the programs, grants, and supports available for Native children, both at government agencies and on the ground in Native communities, with the goal of developing a sustainable system that delivers wrap-around services to Native children.  Then, the 11 member Commission would issue a report to address a series of challenges currently facing Native children.  A Native Children Subcommittee would also provide advice to the Commission.  The Commission’s report would address how to achieve:

  • Better Use of Existing Resources – The Commission will identify ways to streamline current federal, state, and local programs to be more effective and give tribes greater flexibility to devise programs for their communities in the spirit of self-determination and allow government agencies to redirect resources to the areas of most need.
  • Increased Coordination – The Commission will seek to improve coordination of existing programs benefitting Native children.  The federal government houses programs across numerous different agencies, yet these programs too often do not work together. 
  • Measurable Outcomes – The Commission will recommend measures to determine the wellbeing of Native children, and use these measurements to propose short-term, mid-term, and long-term national policy goals.
  • Stronger Data – The Commission will seek to develop better data collection methods.  Too often Native children are left out of the conversation because existing data collection, reporting, and analysis practices exclude them.
  • Stronger Private Sector Partnerships – The Commission will seek to identify obstacles to public-private partnerships in Native communities.
  • Implementation of Best Practices – The Commission will identify and highlight successful models that can   be adopted in Native communities.

For a summary of the bill, click here. For quotations from the five Native American tribes in North Dakota, as well as Senator Byron Dorgan, strongly supporting the bill, click here.

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