Health

County Social Worker Builds Trust with Native American Communities

HHSA social worker Belina Chapman holds her planners that help her schedule visits to the many Native America tribes across the County.
HHSA social worker Belina Chapman holds her planners that help her schedule visits to the many Native America tribes across the County.

She’s put a lot of miles on her car and crosses several national “borders” in a work day, but Belina Chapman manages to do it all within the confines of San Diego County.

Chapman is a County social worker assigned to the Health and Human Services Agency’s Indian Specialty Unit. On any given day, she finds herself anywhere from Manzanita to Santa Ysabel to Barona working with the tribal communities on the county’s 19 federally recognized sovereign reservations.

San Diego County is home to more Indian reservations than any county in the United States, and the Indian Specialty Unit social workers interact exclusively with that population.

“In our unit, we pride ourselves in being very hands-on and doing everything in person,” said Chapman. “We’re trying to make sure we’re approachable, trustworthy and well-received.

“The tribes are like nations, like whole other countries, and so we have an approach that’s respectful, and that’s important.”

Child welfare cases are always a delicate matter, and the sensitivity is heightened with a population that’s long been mistrustful of government. The specialized outreach effort is aiming to build bridges and repairing relations.

That approach has helped overcome a history that’s still fresh in the minds of some tribal elders. Chapman said she encounters grandparents who can remember being sent to boarding schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their native language or wear traditional clothing.

Learning the culture helps Chapman navigate situations and avoid potential issues when she’s working with a Native American family.

“I always greet the oldest person in the room first,” she said. “A lot of times, they don’t want to talk, but just the fact that you made the effort and made contact with them goes a long way.”

Before leaving, she speaks to them again and thanks them for allowing her in their home and lets them know they can contact her anytime.

“A lot of the time, the grandparents and older people in the home are going to be our best source of information.”

Oftentimes families are scared when they get a visit from a social worker. There can often be feelings of shame and embarrassment when they find themselves in that situation.

“I tell the family, ‘we all have bad moments and nobody is perfect,’” Chapman said. “We all have good days and bad days and we just happened to have got you on a bad day.”

She explains the good news, though, is she’s there to help them through the process and things will get better. She wants the family to feel hope.

Chapman can work with families for a period of up to one year in most circumstances. During her time in the Indian Specialty Unit she’s only had one child that wasn’t reunited with their family and went through the adoption process.

“The rest are reunified with their parents or with family members in their tribe,” she said.

One advantage children in the Native American community have is the involvement of their tribes, according to Chapman. She said if a child has to be removed from their family, there is usually another relative or family in their tribe that’s willing to take care of the child.

“The child has the tribe that will speak up for them,” she said. “The tribe makes sure we keep the child culturally connected so they don’t lose that piece of their life.”

The social workers in the Indian Specialty Unit work hand-in-hand with tribal social services, and an Indian Child Welfare Act worker goes out on most calls with them.

“The families really do all the work,” Chapman said. “As social workers, we are just there to give them guidance, get some resources in place and encourage them to take advantage of the services available.”

Tom Christensen is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact