BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — When social workers take a Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Assiniboine or Sioux child from their parents in Yellowstone County, 75 percent go to live somewhere with a Native connection — mostly to relatives or a tribe-approved foster home.

That's under a specialty court in Yellowstone County that began a year ago.

"I felt really pleased with that number," said Heather Sather. Sather, a deputy Yellowstone County attorney, files the paperwork to remove children from unsafe homes.

Sather said it was a sign of progress that the rate was "that high."

But despite the good news, Sather and others agree there's still room to improve.

The other quarter of children in Yellowstone County from the four tribes are in non-Native foster care. And a shortage of Native American foster families often leaves social workers scrambling to find an appropriate placement when relatives aren't available.

"Especially right now, I don't even know if we have any foster homes available," said Brooke Baracker-Taylor, an assistant attorney general for Montana who also files removal cases.

The two attorneys and others provided updates after a year of operating Montana's only Indian Child Welfare Act court.

ICWA, passed by Congress in 1978, aimed to reverse decades of placing Native foster kids in non-Native care, separating them from their communities and fracturing their cultural identities.

The law requires a higher burden of proof at every stage of the process — from the initial inquiry to a judge's placement decision — than in non-Native child removals, according to District Court Judge Rod Souza, who presides over the ICWA court.

While Montana is home to 11 tribes, the court has the capacity to serve only the nearest reservations of Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Peck.

All involved in the court — including attorneys for the children and parents, social workers and ICWA specialists — say improved relationships are key to the court's success.

Souza said he'd recently eaten lunch with the ICWA coordinator for the Crow Tribe, Rebecca Buffalo, who gave him feedback.

"In her assessment, having worked in this area for many years, it was the best it had ever been, as far as the relationship between the department here in Billings and Crow Tribe," Souza said. "And in my mind that speaks volumes."

Buffalo did not return calls from The Billings Gazette.

Members of the year-old court say because of it, social workers more quickly identify family members a child can live with, which is the No. 1 preferred placement under the law.

The court team says it is better able to reach key offices in tribal governments, even as those positions change hands.

And kids are more aware of resources at their disposal, like a summer camp with a Native focus, while parents who want their kids returned are getting more information on offerings like recovery programs.

The court, which began operating in July 2017, is only the fifth in the nation, but more are likely to start up. The Yellowstone County team has heard interest from judges in Missoula and Great Falls, as well as in South Dakota, Minnesota and Colorado.

In August, the Capacity-Building Center for the Courts will visit Billings to compile data for an analysis on the effectiveness of ICWA courts.

But while the court team celebrates initial successes, they say the work is not done.

The foster care system is becoming increasingly strained as child removals climb — a direct consequence, the team says, of the state's ballooning meth problem, as well as growing heroin use. The county has seen a nearly fivefold increase in child abuse and neglect cases during the past eight years.

"We get a list on Friday of homes that have openings," said Heather Eleazer, a supervisor with the Department of Public Health and Human Services. "And it's maybe four or five families on the list."

One positive change in the first year of the court was that there were fewer re-removals in Yellowstone County's ICWA cases (12 percent) than in non-ICWA cases (16 percent). In other words, Native parents last year were less likely to lose their children a second time.

Juli Pierce, guardian ad litem, attributed the development to proactive relatives of Native children intervening earlier to correct risky situations.

Jim Reintsma, a public defender who represents parents, agreed, saying convening all the stakeholders was one of the biggest benefits of the court.

"And I think that's a plus with this particular court because it identifies so many people," he said. "When we get a Native family involved, we're not just getting a grandparent, like we do normally. It's sometimes 20, 30 people."

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com