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Lawsuit Alleges Humboldt, California Unfairly Denied Foster Care Benefits

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A recently filed lawsuit accuses Humboldt County and the state's Department of Social Services of unfairly denying Native American youth access to extended foster care benefits, designed as a lifeline for young adults ages 18, 19 and 20 who've been raised in government care.

The plaintiffs include tribal citizen and former foster youth Madison Fisher, who describes being stripped of her county-arranged housing just months after she moved in.

"The abrupt eviction and elimination of her primary income left Plaintiff Fisher vulnerable to depression, homelessness and relapse given her history of substance abuse," the lawsuit states. "She even made an attempt to end her life."

Documents filed in Humboldt County Superior Court allege that tribal foster youth are being discouraged from applying, denied acceptance and abruptly removed from the program known as extended foster care, due to what plaintiffs say were illegal "redeterminations" of their eligibility.

Plaintiffs in the case are represented by lawyers from the nonprofit California Tribal Families Coalition and the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria, with pro bono assistance from the private law firm Jenner & Block. Their lawsuit against Humboldt County alleges that local officials — in defiance of state and federal guidelines — have viewed "tribal distributions" that some Indigenous youth receive as "a potentially disqualifying resource."

These unfair calculations have left Humboldt County's tribal members "denied years of monetary and in-kind benefits they were legally entitled to, which has resulted in the loss of access to housing, education and medical treatment," court filings allege. 

A spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services declined comment, stating that the agency does not discuss litigation.

Congress allowed states to extend foster care through age 21 with its 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act — a federal law designed to combat the high rates of former foster youth leaving the system for destitution and homelessness. Two years later, California passed its version of the federal law, which through a bill pending before the state Legislature, could soon be extended through age 22. Extended foster care benefits provide young adults with steady income, housing and caseworker support until they turn 21.

The stakes are particularly high for Indigenous youth in California, who state data show are four times more likely to be in foster care than their white peers.

"Native children are already overrepresented in the foster care system in Humboldt County," Bear River Band's Chairperson Josefina Frank stated in a press release about the case. "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."

Kimberly Cluff, legal director for the California Tribal Families Coalition, said she first contacted Humboldt County about the issue in June of 2021, but said eight months went by with no response.

"We did not get so much as an acknowledgement of receipt, a letter or a phone call back — we got nothing," Cluff said in an interview. "Perhaps Humboldt County just has so many problems that this one fell through the cracks, I don't know. But we can't just hope that counties will stop violating people's rights — hope is not a plan."

Cluff said the county's lack of response "left us no alternative" other than filing suit, explaining the uniqueness of this litigation: it's the first she's aware of that specifically targets "per capita payments" or "tribal distributions" being used against tribal foster youth seeking extended foster care benefits.

The case filed in the Eureka courthouse alleges Humboldt County's denials are "based on an erroneous 2013 direction from the state of California, which was subsequently rescinded after the state determined it was discriminatory."

The state is named as a defendant in the lawsuit because officials have "not taken action to require Humboldt County to follow the law and end this discriminatory practice," the plaintiffs' press release states.

The lawsuit highlights the experience of former foster youth Fisher of the Bear River Band, among those whose cases are governed by the Indian Child Welfare Act. The 1978 federal legislation protects Indigenous children, families and tribes from undue separation.

As Fisher approached age 18, she says she was told she would be eligible for extended foster care, and was placed in housing managed by the county.

But a few months later, "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 which was disclosed at the time of application," the lawsuit states.

The county gave Fisher one week's notice to vacate the home it had arranged for her in 2019 and "threatened to remove her by force using a police escort if she did not leave her home," court documents state.

"After losing her housing and primary income — the extended foster care benefits she was entitled to from Humboldt County — plaintiff Fisher struggled to find new housing and pay for necessities with her savings and unemployment," the case reads.

This abrupt loss of security caused Fisher to spiral into depression and relapse into substance abuse, the complaint alleges. 

The court records allege this greatly impacted this one young woman's trajectory: "When state and county systems fail, as they have here, Tribes may lose their young citizens, a vital resource for continued existence."

Attorney Cluff said it is unknown how many foster youth may have simply been told not to apply for extended foster care, how many applied and were disqualified, and how many, like Fisher alleges, were accepted and then kicked out. Some of those impacted may be well into their 20s or early 30s today, she added, and the denial of benefits and the program's employment assistance could have led to frustrated higher education goals, low incomes and housing insecurity. 

"We want to see all the youth negatively affected made whole for the harms that existed, but to do that, we have to find them," Cluff said. "When I say making them whole, I mean providing them now, in real dollars, the benefits they were denied back when they should have received them at age 18."

The amount of tribal distributions and when they are sent to adult members varies depending on the tribe. The income often comes from casino profits, but members can also receive payouts from things like settlements over land or water rights.

Cluff said problems arise when 17- and 18-year olds seeking to enroll in extended foster care are expected to understand what tribal funds they are eligible for or will receive, and to self-report specific amounts. Social workers also make assumptions that tribal youth don't need the county help, she added, because tribes will take care of them. 

"There's some stereotype in there, some assumptions," Cluff said. "We have youth who are members of non-gaming tribes or small gaming tribes, who may still get a payment of $1,000 or $2,000 from, let's say, a lawsuit settlement over timber rights from 1950. The regulations say it's not a reason to make them disqualified for these benefits."

This is not the first time Humboldt County's child welfare system has come under heightened scrutiny. 

A 2018 settlement with the California Bureau of Children's Justice followed years of investigation into the county's poor handling of child abuse and neglect reports. In 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union joined four local northern California tribes — Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, the Trinidad Rancheria, the Wiyot Tribe and the Yurok Tribe — calling for an expansion of the 2018 court ruling requiring Humboldt to overhaul its child abuse reporting system. 

If her lawsuit is successful, Cluff said she hopes it will have a "ripple effect" among other counties and lead to better training of social workers who determine eligibility. She noted that even in tribes where profits from casinos are distributed among members, human needs remain high, particularly among young adults taken from their homes as children.

As many as one-third of residents of federal tribal lands in California live below the poverty level, a recent housing study found, which is more than twice the statewide rate.

Leaders of the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria — located in two sections of Humboldt County, at the eastern edge of Fortuna and southeast of Loleta — want these historic injustices to end, with fewer children even entering foster care and tribes able to meet the needs of their members. Yet for the time being, many tribal youth exiting foster care remain reliant on Humboldt County and the state.

"As with many tribes in Humboldt County, the history is incredibly tragic, so tribal sovereignty and the ability to take care of their tribal members is absolutely priority number one," Cluff said. "It's very accurate to say that a goal of Bear River is to never have any of their children or youth ever in the system of Humboldt County Child Welfare."

Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version.

This story was first published by The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

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