It's another first for the state of Utah and the Ute Tribe. State and Ute child welfare workers last week formally kicked off a joint effort aimed at protecting Ute children from abuse and neglect, while keeping them connected to their family and tribe.

Tahwe Towuhchew (Ute for "our children") Ute Family Center, located in a trailer next door to tribal headquarters in Fort Duchesne,was dedicated Feb. 18 in a special Ute prayer ceremony before tribal members and state child protection workers. The ceremony marked the culmination of more than two years of work to improve child welfare services available on the Ute Reservation."Former Business Committee Chairwoman Ruby Atwine began this project 21/2 years ago. She had the vision for our children. This will bring Indian kids back to the reservation to learn about their culture and tradition," said Business Committee member Rose Tavea-pont.

Eight workers from the Roosevelt Division of Child and Family Services office and three Ute Tribe social service workers will staff the new Ute Family Center and provide child welfare services on the reservation, said Ann O. Cheves, Eastern Region director for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.

Previously tribal social service workers handled protective services for tribal children while the state administered foster care services, said Cheves. "In the long-run the tribe will be able to develop their own child welfare system." The Ute Family Center will also develop programs to recruit and train Ute families to serve as foster parents.

"State officials acknowledge the excellent work state-licensed foster parents have been doing with Ute children," said DCFS Public Information Officer Randy Ripplinger, "now as Utes develop their own foster homes, abused Indian children can carefully be moved into protection within their culture."

The concept is the result of the Indian Child Welfare plan signed last September by Gov. Mike Leavitt and Ute Tribe Business Committee Chairman Ronald J. Wopsock.

Under the terms of the agreement the state will provide support and technical assistance to the Ute staff. Ute Social Services officials will direct services to Ute children and families, while state workers help increase the capacity of the tribe to provide comprehensive child welfare and family preservation services.

Together state and tribal child welfare workers will be responsible for drafting policies and procedures and identifying the best way to serve Ute families and their children.

The Ute Family Center includes offices, a small play area, a conference room and visitation room. The center is funded by the state and the Ute Tribe.