Minnesota has the most disproportionate rate in the country of Native American children in foster care, and St. Louis County's rate is among the worst in the state.

The University of Minnesota Duluth's social work department has been tackling that issue for some time, and was just awarded one of three federal grants to further its work.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded a five-year grant to UMD worth more than $2 million to create a better delivery system for the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law meant to keep Native American kids with Native American families.

"People in the systems care a lot about children and families, but there is something about the way the system is responding that is leading to high levels of disparity," said Priscilla Day, director of the Center for Regional and Tribal Welfare at UMD, and head of the university's social work department.

The center will lead the work and partner with Duluth's 6th Judicial District, St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Leech Lake Tribal Court and both the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands of Lake Superior Chippewa.

UMD has been working with the county and local court system for several years as part of another grant to see how Indian child welfare cases are handled and to try to make that work more effective. The national grant was a chance to further those efforts. The ultimate goal, Day said, is to devise a system of policies and practices for social workers, the court system, tribes and the county to use when dealing with Indian child welfare cases.

"This isn't about blaming or pointing fingers," Day said, but about better outcomes for kids. The goal is to establish methods that can be used across the country.

The project likely will involve studying data and how it is or isn't shared between schools, tribes and the county. It could look at neglect - a driver of high numbers - and whether intervention can take place before it leads to a report, Day said. And training in historical trauma will most certainly be a part of it, building on training that already is being done.

"My grandmother was taken out of her family when she was 4 years old and sent to a boarding school," Day said, referring to federal boarding schools where Native American children were forced to assimilate, forbidden to use their native language. "That certainly impacted the way she went on to parent, because she missed all those formative years of interacting with a parent. And I am sure that impacted my parent. And so it goes on and on."

Boarding schools also introduced neglect and physical and sexual abuse. But native families are resilient, and many are working to revitalize cultural ways and traditions, she said, which is why it's so important to try to keep native children with their families as much as possible, and within their communities, if it's not.

The county is hoping for better coordination of responses to child safety and protection issues, and those that are culturally responsive. Are searches for relatives rigorous enough; is the Indian child welfare law being followed in the placement of kids? Those are questions that will be studied, said Holly Church, division director for children and family services for St. Louis County's public health and human services.

The idea is to reduce the disproportionality the county is seeing with out-of-home placements, and to find ways to stabilize families and get them the support they need.

"We want to see more kids remain in the family home, and for those kids who do need placement, we want them to be able to be with relatives when at all possible and to hasten unification of the family when kids are placed out of the home," Church said.

There are several barriers stemming from historical trauma that helped lead to the disproportionality, Church said, citing poverty, addiction, mental health, racism and a lack of resources to deal with those things.

"On top of that, we have a lot of work to do as a child protection workforce to continue to build our ability to work in culturally responsive ways with Native American families," she said, noting an already strong partnership with UMD, which has educated some of the Native American social workers on the county's staff.

"This is a really important issue to us," Church said. "It's a significant part of our work with families, and that's why we continue to devote a lot of time and energy ... to try to reduce these disparities."

The project is called Jii-Anishinaabe-Bimaatiziwag Partnership Project, which means "so they can live the Indian way of life."