Family Services Director Sets New Goals, Keeps Kids at the Forefront of Her Work

By Toya Stewart Downey, February 13, 2017

Coming back to work for the Mille Lacs Band as the Director of Family Services was almost like coming home for Georgette Christensen. After being gone a decade, she returned in July.

“I’ve always had a fondness for Mille Lacs,” said Georgette, whose first stint in the same role was from 1996 to 2001.

“Mille Lacs feels like home,” she said. “There’s a great draw to the lake and a draw to the people.”

While she has seen some positive changes since her last tenure, she still sees a need for the services her department provides.

Those services include foster care, child protection services, Elder and disabled care, outreach and prevention, support services and resources along with independent living and life skills programs.

Yet, in spite of the work the department does in its efforts to help families, it’s troubling to Georgette to know that many in the community don’t have favorable feelings about its efforts or the department.

Because for Georgette, a member of the White Earth Band, “it’s always been about helping families.”

The early years

As the youngest of eight children born into an alcoholic family on the edge of Mahnomen County Georgette’s worldview was limited. She went to a little school with only a handful of other Native American students and never dreamed that college was in her future. She always thought she would grow up, stay at home and get a job.

It wasn’t until a high school counselor, Bill Woods, asked her where she was going to college that she even gave it much thought. She told him she wasn’t and that her family couldn’t afford it.

Still, he encouraged her to apply and helped her with the process.

When she told her mom about it her mom said no because the family couldn’t afford to pay for college. So Georgette told her mom all she had to do was sign the financial aid form and she would do the rest.

She was accepted to Bemidji and decided to attend – even though she had never set foot on the campus.

“Growing up in that environment I knew that there was more for me in life than that and because of Bill, bless his heart, I decided college was a possibility.”

When she graduated, Georgette did an internship in Ramsey County’s child protection department. From that humble beginning she’s held other jobs including working in non-profit organizations, a private foster care agency and for Hennepin County. Mille Lacs is the only tribe she’s worked for.

Before beginning her career with the Band in 1996, Georgette first earned her Master’s of Social Work with a concentration in family therapy from Augsburg College.

Coming home to Mille Lacs

“One of the questions I ask myself is ‘How can I make an impact?’” she said. “Another is ‘How can I make the community see there is an impact to the work we’re doing?’”

And while there aren’t easy answers to help solve some of the bigger issues of the drug problems or societal ills, Georgette does have some ideas.

“One of the big challenges now is the drug scene. It has increased and it’s become more powerful,” she said, adding that it makes the need for services even greater.

“During my first tenure, the children we worked with are now adults with their children in the system.”

“Drugs and alcohol are brain diseases and we have to understand it as a brain disease and address it as such.”

“I know and have seen the devastation that alcohol can do to Native families.”

The intergenerational trauma that has traveled from generation to generation also needs to be addressed to help families identify and label it so they can understand how it has affected their children and grandchildren.

“I’ve made it my life’s calling to advocate for Native children so that they are safe.”

One of her goals are to grow the staff in her department so they can better serve families. She also wants to see staff deployed back to each district instead of being based in District I. She is also hoping to see more Native foster families identified because the need for foster care has grown substantially.

Another thing she plans to do is to attend community meetings to share more about the department and let the community ask questions. The department is also updating and creating policies and procedures to better guide its work and is working with Health and Human Services Quality and Compliance Department to see this task through.

A top goal is to create a family preservation program that will help families find resources and offer options that will help them maintain positive and healthy lifestyles. The participation would be voluntary and while there are still many details to work out, its goal would be to protect the wellbeing of the children the department serves.

“The progress has been slow, but I’m committed to seeing these things through,” Georgette said. “I want my department to have a good reputation in the community.

“I want our department to be a safe place for families to come to for help.”

Still, she knows perception can be reality for some families who have worked with Family Services.

“A family who has been traumatized sees life differently and our children see trauma,” she said. “That trauma changes that child’s brain. Many families don’t understand traumas and how it carries on generationally and changes our brain.”

Though her work is “incredibly hard,” there is gratification. She loves to see parents pass their drug tests. Or them spending time with their kids or when kids are placed with their relatives.

“My staff wants to see families together. We want to see children with their parents — we know children want to be with their parents.”

“We do this job for the kids.”

Georgette lives in the Twin Cities with her husband David and their three daughters.