By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Chippewa Cree Tribe is one step closer to administering a federal welfare program on its own rather than relying on the state and county as it does now.
Tribal council member Jonathan Windy Boy said the tribe received approval this week from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to administer its own Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.
TANF is federally funded, providing cash and other assistance to low-income families. States use the federal money to implement their own welfare programs. TANF recipients are eligible to receive cash benefits for five years.
TANF replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Under AFDC, families primarily received cash benefits. TANF recipients are required to engage in a number of activities that make them more employable.
Tribal officials say the administration shift will mean more effective, culturally appropriate social services for the more than 300 tribal families and individuals who currently benefit from TANF. Windy Boy said the tribally run program will provide a more specialized approach to job preparation, work and supportive services for its people.
"The circumstances we face as Indian people are unique. It just makes sense that we administer our own program," he said. "Up until now we've always been at the mercy of the state. More and more people were having their benefits cut. The state controlled everything, they held the purse strings. Now we'll assume that control."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designated $1.79 million per year for three years to the tribe's TANF program, which will be administered by the Chippewa Cree Tribal Business Committee in Rocky Boy.
Of the 392 TANF recipients in Hill County in 1994, 379 of the cases were Native American families or individuals.
"That's a considerable number and we want to make sure our people are taken care of," said Windy Boy, who also is a member of the state House. "Taking tribal control of TANF will allow us to implement a wider range of services to enhance the social service programs we already have in place."
Those services could include family counseling, substance abuse prevention, business training, and culture programs, he said.
If all goes as planned, Windy Boy said, the TANF program should be up and running in Rocky Boy by Sept. 1. The tribe recently hired a nine-member staff, including a TANF director and several case managers. Work training for the new TANF staff will begin Aug. 16 with Virginia Hill, a nationally known TANF consultant from California, who's responsible for helping to set up successful tribal TANF programs in several states across the country.
"Tribal TANF programs provide a lot more flexibility for the tribes," Hill said Thursday. "Each tribal program is unique because they can custom tailor the program to their own reservation, so TANF can better fit their people's needs."
The shift to a tribally run TANF program could have effects in Hill County. Pam Harada, manager of the Havre Job Service Workforce Center, said the center currently contracts its services to assist TANF recipients with the work component of the program. Because the center's staffing is based on the number of clients it's serving, the shift of hundreds of TANF recipients to Rocky Boy could potentially affect the center's staffing levels.
Tim Whitney, the county welfare director for the Office of Public Assistance, said his office will likely not see a change.
"We will be shifting the cases that receive cash benefits to Rocky Boy," he said. "But we'll still be determining those recipients' food stamp and Medicaid eligibility, so our workload really doesn't decrease."
Windy Boy said a tribally controlled TANF program in Rocky Boy is just the beginning of many changes he'd like to see. He said he recently began working with tribal officials from Fort Belknap in a joint effort to eventually take over county-administered Medicaid programs for tribal recipients.
Hill said Rocky Boy is the 43rd approved tribal TANF program in the United States. Of the seven federally recognized tribes in Montana, only two - the Salish and Kootenai Tribe and Fort Belknap - have tribal TANF programs in place.
Hill said two public information meetings on the TANF program will be held the third week of August. Call Hill at 395-5705 for more information.