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A California tribe and one of its members are suing Humboldt County and the State of California for discriminating against tribal youth in the foster care system. 

The lawsuit, filed by the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria and tribal member Madison Fisher, alleges that tribal youth have been systematically denied foster care benefits after turning 18, despite being eligible for those benefits until age 21 under California’s Extended Foster Care program.  

According to the lawsuit, Fisher applied for extended foster care benefits when she turned 18 and was initially declared eligible. However, a few months later, the suit states, “Humboldt County changed its mind unilaterally and stripped Plaintiff Fisher of her eligibility” for the extended foster care program due to her receipt of tribal distributions.

“Native children are already overrepresented in the foster care system in Humboldt County,” Chairperson Josefina Frank of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria said in a statement. “Adding to this inequity, Humboldt County instituted an improper policy that specifically singles out and denies tribal youth the supportive services that other foster youths receive to help them transition to independent living when they turn 18 years old.” 

Studies show that former foster youth are at dramatically higher risk for suicide, homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and pregnancy than non-foster youth. According to a March 2022 report by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, Native youth are in the state’s foster care system at four times their rate in the general population. 

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The lawsuit names the California Department of Social Services, Humboldt County, the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) and DHSS Director Connie Beck, as defendants.

A spokesperson for Humboldt County told a local media outlet, “The Department of Health and Human Services cares deeply for all children and youth it serves. These matters are important issues for the county, and we take them very seriously. However, this is now a legal matter, and we want to preserve the integrity of that process. As such we will not be able to discuss this further with the press at this time.”

The global law firm Jenner & Block and the nonprofit California Tribal Families Coalition are representing the tribe and Fisher on a pro-bono basis. 

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