Just say yes
Like a few other Native Americans in the area, Sue Amos can't understand why the Dallas Inter-Tribal Center doesn't have a child welfare worker on the job anymore.
Amos, a 56-year-old Choctaw who shares a small two-bedroom apartment with her mentally handicapped daughter and three grandchildren, says the state would have taken the kids from her earlier this year had the center's social worker not stepped in.
A complaint from a relative had prompted Child Protective Services to open a case, raising the possibility that the Amos children, 18-month-old twins and a 7-year-old, might be removed to a foster home.
Most of the allegations proved false, but some problems--head lice and the filthy condition of the family's West Oak Cliff apartment--couldn't be denied.
"Addie spoke up for us to Child Protective Services," says Amos, referring to Addie Latimer, who had been director and sole caseworker for the Dallas Inter-Tribal Center's Indian child welfare program. "She talked to us about what we needed to do, like keeping the house cleaner."
During the past six years, Latimer intervened in at least a dozen such child welfare cases each month. At least that is what she did until August 16, when she packed a few boxes, went home to her Arlington apartment, and began looking for another job.
A month earlier, the Dallas Inter-Tribal Center's nine-member board decided not to reapply for the small Bureau of Indian Affairs grant that paid Latimer's $28,000 annual salary.
Mary Biermann, the center's executive director, says the board decided to drop the program because it anticipated that federal money--amounting to $40,300 last year--was to be cut in half. "The BIA did not adequately fund it, so it could not be continued," Biermann says flatly.
But there is more to it than that.
The program could have been saved if someone only tried.
Latimer says Biermann and the center were more caught up in keeping a bigger share of the grant money for administrators than in anything else. "All they were concerned about was the indirect costs," says Latimer, referring to money taken from the grant to pay for administrative salaries and benefits. "I heard about that all the time."
A proposed budget for the 1996-'97 grant prepared by Latimer and given to the board designated 18 percent for these administrative costs, which were over and above her salary and benefits and the money budgeted for rent, utilities, building repairs and insurance, telephone, office supplies, local and out-of-area travel, copying, postage, and auditing expenses.
The 18 percent was the maximum allowed by the Feds for the grant, but the center wanted more, Latimer says, so it wasn't interested in pursuing the grant.
As for the budget cuts, a Bureau of Indian Affairs letter dated July 3 and an attached grant application confirm that the Dallas center had been informed of a possible cut in funding in the new fiscal year. But the grant was only reduced by 25 percent, not the 50 percent Biermann mentioned.
As it turns out, if the center had simply applied for the grant, it would have received the same amount this year as last year, the Feds say.
"Basically, the reason they don't have it anymore is that they chose not to apply," says Retha Murdock, a BIA social worker in Anadarko, Oklahoma, who oversaw the Dallas program. "Money was available."
Because the bureau closed a program in Kansas, it was left with more than $72,000 to split between Dallas and a smaller program in Oklahoma City, Murdock says.
When informed of that, Biermann said, "That is a real surprise."
The board's chairman, K. Roger Morris, did not return repeated telephone calls placed through the center.
Biermann says some grant programs at the center contribute as much as 42.5 percent to administration.
But even the center's accountants, Pitts & Pitts, warned Biermann and the board in an October 4, 1995, letter that thatoverhead rate is too high, and could lead to reduced grants and donations.
The nonprofit center, located in a large storefront on Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, uses more than $1.5 million in federal and state grants to provide free health and dental care, job training, and alcohol and drug abuse counseling.
Biermann says the child welfare program was not among those that were expected to contribute 42.5 percent to administrative overhead. "In the past the board carried that program because the grant didn't fully cover administrative costs," she says.
Just what the grant didn't cover is hard to fathom, given a copy of the program's budget document covering September 1, 1995, through August 31, 1996. The center took 20 percent off the top, or $6,307, for "administrative support," once again, for costs over and above Latimer's salary and benefits, and utilities, rent, etc.
"I didn't have a computer or anything like that," Latimer says. "I had pencil and paper." An administrative secretary did some of her typing, but she did most of it at home on her own typewriter, she says.
And the center didn't keep Latimer to the end of the budgeted year. Instead, she was let go two weeks early.
The loss of one child caseworker in Dallas and Tarrant counties may not sound like much. But given the heavy load of neglect and substance abuse cases Latimer says she encountered in the largely impoverished urban Indian community, many children are being affected in very tangible ways.
"Urban Indians are people more or less cut adrift," says Ellis Bert, a retired lawyer who has done a lot of pro bono legal work for the child welfare program. "Most are poor and they have problems. I don't know what it is, but there always has been an urge to take their children away and convert them."
Latimer says the majority of her work among the 20,000 Native Americans in the Dallas-Fort Worth area involved intervention--trying to help families, usually single mothers, pull things together and avoid losing their kids.
"I would do a lot of counseling, or referral to agencies," she says. "A lot of the times the first place you find help was with extended family in the area. I'd contact them and see if they are willing or able to help."
In cases where children are removed from their parents, tribes have authority to intervene under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which was enacted to prevent Native American children from being separated from their communities and placed with non-Indian families.
Latimer would work in those cases as a conduit to the 500 or so recognized tribes throughout the United tates, keeping them informed as they became involved in a child's situation.
Latimer, a full-blooded Pawnee, also developed a reputation for her generosity toward the families she worked with.
"She would solicit Thanksgiving turkeys or whatever was needed," says Betty Pahcheka, who is active in local Indian issues. "She cared about our Indian children."
Amos, the West Oak Cliff grandmother, says Latimer would do her family small favors from time to time, such as watching the kids when Amos would go to the doctor.
"I can't understand why they didn't work a little harder to keep the program, and I'm not only talking for my family," says Amos. "It needs to be there.
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