Child Welfare In Indian Country: A Story Of Painful Removals

Terry L. Cross (Terry@nicwa.org) is director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, in Portland, Oregon. He wrote this essay with Daryle Conquering Bear Crow (dconqueringbear@difrc.org), a Healthy Living program assistant at the Denver Indian Family Resource Center.

What story most effectively communicates the unfortunate realities for American Indians encountering the child welfare system in the United States? Should I tell the story of a grandmother who called my office at the National Indian Child Welfare Association last week because she was about to lose contact with her grandchildren, who were being adopted out of foster care? Maybe, I thought, I should tell the story of my friend John, who passed away last year after a lifetime of searching for his tribal identity. The last time I saw him, his face brightened and he said, “Did you hear I got my enrollment papers? Now no one can say I’m not really Mohawk.” John, too, had been taken from his birth family and placed in foster care with white parents. I thought of the hundreds of calls to our office from parents, relatives, and care providers; the dozens of reviews of tribal child welfare case records that we do as we consult with and train tribes on strengthening their services; and the court cases involving Native children in the child welfare system that we follow even to the US Supreme Court. Every day I witness child welfare systems, which are meant to protect children, ignoring the long-term negative consequences of unnecessary removals or inappropriate placements of children in foster care.

As I pondered this challenge, I realized that mine was not the voice to anchor this narrative. I decided to reach out to Daryle Conquering Bear Crow, a youth whose firsthand experience in foster care could inform the dialogue in a powerful way. I first met Daryle when he began interning at our office in 2013. I had heard of his advocacy as an American Indian youth and was delighted that we might have an impact on his career by teaching him about how improved child welfare practices can protect children and preserve cultural identity. This is his story.

Daryle’s Story

Daryle was twelve years old and getting ready to go to his first sweat lodge, which is a purification ritual to prepare for participation in the Sun Dance—a dance performed by members of his tribe as a test of bravery and endurance by overcoming strenuous physical exertion and pain—when foster care came into his life and ripped him away. State child protective services removed him from his family, extended family, community, and culture after allegations of neglect. Placed with strangers in a strange environment, he was scared and emotional. He did not cope well, and the solution was to place him on psychotropic medication. The treatment he really wanted was sage and prayers with an elder, but that was not a choice for him.

“Even as a tribal youth, I knew how our cultural remedies could help in mind, body, and spirit—help me be well,” Daryle tells me.

But the system often unknowingly strips these everyday cultural rituals away from youth entering foster care. Daryle’s stay in foster care, which was supposed to be only temporary, became long term.

“I was slowly disconnected from my Lakota culture and everything that I was ever taught as a young boy,” he says. “I aged out into a world of uncertainty. I didn’t have what I truly needed for my well-being: a connection to my tribe and culture.”

Going through the foster care system, Daryle lost the connection to important family members who taught him to dance and sing, he says. He longed to go to the local urban Indian center and interact with other Natives and leaders in the community who looked like him, whom he could identify with.

“Many choices that were made for me were made without me,” Daryle tells me. “In my journey in the state care system, I felt left behind.

Child Removals Among American Indians And Alaska Natives

I am a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. I know that Daryle’s story represents the experience of generations of our people. The removal of indigenous children from their cultures by colonial governments is recognized by the United Nations as a form of cultural genocide. The trauma is recognized, pervasive, and long term. Yet the practice continues in the United States despite federal laws designed to end it. It would seem that the routine removal of Native children from their families and culture has been, and is, part of the American culture. The intent to protect Indian children, to give them a better life (understood in this context as “a white life”), is offered in the spirit of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt—chief architect of the Indian boarding school system—whose motto was, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

The first removals came when the Virginia Company, established in the 1600s for the purposes of establishing settlements on the east coast of North America, authorized the kidnapping of Indian children to civilize them. Catholic missions received similar authority. By the early 1800s the so-called outing system began removing Indian children from their families and tribes and placing them on farms and ranches to work. By the late 1800s nearly all Indian children were sent to large military boarding schools and forbidden to speak their native languages or practice their religions.

Then, in the 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs partnered with the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), whose member agencies placed hundreds of Indian children in white homes under the Snyder Act of 1921, without any due process. By 1976 one in every four American Indian and Alaska Native children were in out-of-home care. Moved by the fear that their tribes could cease to exist, tribal leaders and advocates secured passage of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), which was intended to stop the practice. The act sets federal requirements that apply to state child custody proceedings involving an Indian child who is a member of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe.

Unfortunately, as can be seen in Daryle’s story, the legacy of removal of Indian children from their families, communities, and cultures continues at alarming rates. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in fact, recently cited the United States for violation of its international treaty obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which called on those who signed the treaty to end practices that deny cultural rights. While the ICWA has been a positive influence, disproportionate placements—many unnecessary—of our children persist.

For example, in Alaska, although only 17 percent of the total child population is Alaska Native, Alaska Native children represent more than 60 percent of the foster care population. In Multnomah County, Oregon, the placement rate for American Indian and Alaska Native children is twenty-eight times higher than for white children. No federal agency oversees or enforces the ICWA, and too many states fail to comply with its mandates. The consequences for children, families, and tribes can be devastating. There is another, unseen side of Daryle’s story: the impact on those from whom he was taken.

Going Home

Daryle’s introduction back to his family and his culture took place at his father’s wake. He was aging out of foster care when his father passed away. The last and only time he saw him was years earlier at the six-month permanency hearing after he was placed in foster care.

“At the wake, I didn’t know the proper way to act; I was embarrassed and felt awkward,” Daryle tells me. “But my relatives, especially my grandmother and aunt, were comforting and supportive. They treated me like I had never been gone.

“Grandmother told me, ‘We heard nothing about you and never knew why we couldn’t visit you.’ She told me how much they wanted me back but how powerless they felt against the people in the foster care system. My aunt told me that my father often wondered out loud to her about where I was and what I might be doing. When I returned, they treated me like I was still small and would buy me gifts because they had missed out on so many birthdays. I can see the trauma is still with them, with all of us.”

It is not just the child who suffers. For every child removed from his or her loving family and extended family, his or her relatives also suffer the trauma of loss. This loss is especially poignant when removals are unnecessary, driven by racial bias, or conducted without due process.

Unintentional Bias And Colonial Privilege

In the nearly forty years I have trained child welfare workers, I have only occasionally encountered intentional bias. In one workshop a state worker said, “I don’t know why I have to follow ICWA. I thought we killed all of you people anyway.” This shocking statement was the rare exception. However, unconscious bias, usually based on stereotyping combined with “white privilege,” or societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by nonwhite people in the same circumstances, can yield deeply damaging decisions and painful outcomes for children and families. For example, two families, one white and one American Indian or Alaska Native, can encounter a child abuse or neglect investigation for the very same circumstances. Yet, according to the CWLA, the Native family is three times more likely to have its child placed in foster care. If the circumstances include substance abuse, the likelihood jumps to eight times, according to a 2009 study by Vernon Carter. There seems to be no explanation but cultural bias when two substance-abusing families are treated so differently. That bias is so deeply ingrained in the American image of the Indian that even well-intentioned social workers make unconsciously biased decisions that, in the long run, can lead to harm for all concerned.

Yet it goes beyond negative bias toward Indian and Native people. American society tends to believe that America has the best culture in the world. The solutions that America has offered the indigenous peoples of this conquered land have almost all been aimed at assimilation. I have observed in my years of providing cultural competence training that most of the country is curiously perplexed at our resistance to assimilation. It seems that America prefers to forget the past. But in so doing, the country continues to perpetuate cultural genocide by destroying families, taking our children, and carrying out an agenda of assimilating them in non-Indian homes under the guise of the children’s safety and best interests. Foster care is one of the few places in American society where one culture can decide what is in the best interest of an individual from another culture. The power differential is so great that the indigenous population is bound to lose most of the time.

In the long run, the well-being of the child and family is sacrificed. The underlying causes that lead Native children into the child welfare system—poverty, untreated trauma, and substance use disorders—go untreated, and the long-term negative consequences of removal are rationalized. It is well documented that adverse childhood experiences contribute to poor health outcomes in adults. Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that about 25 percent of all American Indian youth have four or more adverse experiences. The long-term health implications are challenging enough without adding the trauma of removal.

Daryle relives the trauma of his removal constantly.

“It is still going on in my community and extended family,” Daryle says. “When I hear about a relative being removed, I feel fear throughout my body and I see it in the eyes of my relatives. We all share the post-traumatic stress. I am worried about the long-term impact on the health of those I love, and I worry about the impact of the medication that I was given against my will.”

Our Constituents

Daryle and I work to make the invisible visible. Our work is to try to hold back the tide of cultural colonial privilege in the child welfare system. We do this by raising awareness, advocating for compliance with ICWA, training child welfare workers, building tribal capacity to run their own child welfare services, and engaging young people in the work of remembering who they are. We are just two among hundreds who are doing this work.

We do it for people such as Milo, who was raised in foster care and, as an adult, is now trying to be the best dad he can be, finally learning about his own culture to pass it on to his child. We do it for Mandy, whose minister (serving also as her foster parent and, later, her adoptive father) beat and then raped her, determined to cast the “Indian demons” out of her. We do it for Shelly, who was taken from the home where she was the only stable “parent” her younger siblings had even known. We do it for Charlie, who volunteers at a senior center to be close to elders of his tribe—despite being homeless after aging out of his white foster home. Each of these foster care alumni are now advocates, like Daryle, working to heal themselves and help ensure that others avoid or survive similar circumstances.

To be sure, most Indian children and youth placed outside their culture do not experience the horror stories of the advocates in this narrative. However, even those who found good homes, such as an adult adoptee we encountered named Rochelle, longed for a cultural identity that her loving foster and adoptive family could not give her. As she reports today, no book or video could teach her what it meant to be an American Indian. Not until she found her tribe and met her uncle could she begin to learn the essence of her identity.

Daryle has been able to find his way back, but the price has been high. A few years ago he attended the First Nations Repatriation Institute’s Annual Gathering for Our Children and Returning Adoptees Pow Wow in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“It was an experience that I will never forget,” Daryle says.

The pow wow brought together adoptees and youth alumni from across the nation as well as some from Canada. Attendees shared their stories of losing their cultural identity. There was a healing ceremony.

“It was a moment in life that was unexplainable,” Daryle says. “It was the first ceremony where I had the opportunity to be recognized for the many struggles and challenges we faced being away from our Indian communities, to be welcomed home.”

Daryle waited twelve years for this experience, while many Native youth will never have the opportunity.

We need to keep in mind the agony, hurt, and disconnection that many Native youth in foster care will experience and make a conscious choice to consider their well-being in relation to connection to culture, Daryle says. His experiences have given him the strength and direction to advocate for young people in foster care, making sure that “No American Indian Child Is Left Behind.”

ICWA And Tribal Child Welfare Programs

The ICWA did two very important things. First, it set criteria that states are to follow when taking an Indian child into custody for foster care or in the case of adoption. Second, it recognized the sovereign authority of tribes, at least regarding child welfare, to be equal to that of states. The act requires states to recognize tribal laws, courts, and decisions regarding child welfare matters and to transfer cases to tribal courts upon request, unless there is good reason not to. Today in many areas of the country, tribes and states are equal partners in the provision of child welfare.

However, old animosities and racial bias persist in far too many places. White privilege is manifest in policies and procedures that too often keep tribes out of the picture for children. State and county managers often believe that tribes are incapable of protecting their children, and so they must step in with their “superior” solutions. Unfortunately, they fail to see that child safety and tribal sovereignty are interdependent and that, ultimately, no outside force, no colonial policing agent, or bureaucracy, will ever offer more than a temporary and fundamentally harmful solution. Worse yet, they too often fail to realize that child safety can best be realized when states and tribes work together, empowering each other to fulfill their roles.

Across the country, many tribes are now building new child welfare practice models that take more of a public health approach. For these tribes, it is not enough to wait for bruises or abandonment to initiate services. These tribes are addressing safety by supporting families, creating community-based responses to families at risk, and lowering the number of children entering foster care by putting services into the home of the child.

I asked Daryle how his life might have been different if the state had followed the ICWA and worked with his tribe to bring child welfare services into his family home. His response paints a picture of hope—if child welfare can get this right:

If this approach had been used in my case, I believe I would now have my Lakota name. I would know how to act as a proper Lakota warrior. I would understand our medicinal teachings and not be afraid of learning our ways. I would know who I am, would not feel guilt, and I would know how to raise my own children in my native culture one day. My family would have had a chance to be stronger, and my father might have had a chance to recover from his substance abuse. My family might have been able to live with less trauma and better health outcomes in the long term. That is why I am so dedicated to being an advocate. My family and I deserved better from a system that was supposed to help us. My goal is to make sure others have a better chance than I had.

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