We all know the story of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, his arrogance and
his policy of extinction. And although he lost the battle at Wounded Knee,
urban Natives today are faced with challenges of those same policies.
Instead of guns and arrows, however, the battle is with paper and pen; and
instead of the fight being out in the open, it is often found behind closed
doors in court rooms and in the offices of children's services.
This is not to say that there is not some really good work being done to
help our families in need and to reunite families with care and dedication.
However, it is difficult not to be a bit cynical when we consider our
history has included federal policies that were intended to break down the
American Indian family. Who can forget the forced boarding schools designed
and implemented by Capt. Richard Pratt, who stated this was meant to "kill
the Indian, save the man"? Also, these policies sent Indian children from
various reservations across the country to distant institutions with the
main goal of assimilation.
By creating geographical separation, children were removed from their
extended families and support systems. Today some of our Native families
living in cities, who have unfortunate encounters with the state child
welfare system, will disproportionately experience less assistance for
their families, and are more likely to have their children removed and less
likely to have them returned. We are losing our children to foster care and
adoption, and continue to be over-represented in the system.
The King County Coalition on Racial Disproportionality, together with the
King County Superior Court, Children's Administration and Casey Family
Programs, has worked with a research team from the Northwest Institute for
Children and Families and the University of Washington School of Social
Work. They have published their findings that American Indians are
over-represented at every point in the system and are faring worse by all
measures than their Caucasian counterparts.
Compared to Caucasian children, American Indian children:
* Are disproportionately represented in child welfare referral accepted for
* Are more likely to be removed from their homes and placed in foster care;
* Make up a disproportionate percentage of children in care longer than two
years and longer than four years; and
* Wait longer to be adopted.
The racial disparity grows at each benchmark step within the child welfare
system. Important to note is that the national literature indicates that
this is true for American Indian/Alaska Native children in California,
Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts,
Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota,
Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah,
Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.
One might wonder where is the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 in all of
this? A very powerful policy, especially when you consider it was the first
policy to help keep families together. Federal policy mandates that tribes
be notified, that there be a placement preference with extended family and
tribal members, and that there be "active efforts" in working with American
Indian families. A lot of really good changes have come about since the
act, especially since more and more tribes are having their own tribal
courts and providing their own counseling and parenting programs that have
created a tremendous positive impact.
Certainly, generalizations should not be made, and tribes vary in success,
but there has been tremendous improvement over the last 20 years. Remember
the devastating statistics in 1978, when 33 percent to 35 percent of all
American Indian children were in foster care and of those, 80 percent were
placed in non-Native homes. We have generations of lost children in the
system. Many of those lost generations are found among today's children who
are living in urban areas.
The definition of who is an Indian often has also left Native children to
flounder in a non-Indian system, especially in urban areas. Often those
mandated protections are not there if you are not an enrolled member of a
tribe or if you come from a non-federally recognized tribe. More and more
we are coming across families who are almost full-blooded Indian, but do
not possess enough blood quantum in one tribe to be enrolled. We also have
our Native families marrying our Mexican cousins, and here in the Northwest
we also have several generations of Filipinos known as Indopenos.
Urban Natives are more at risk of losing their children when involved with
the system than those living on or near their reservations. We desperately
need the help of tribes to assist the urban situation. It would be
beneficial for our urban American Indians to have local tribes near their
area take jurisdiction over tribal families. If we are going to save
families from the state system, we also need tribes to consider lowering
the blood quantum requirements in order to be sure that our children will
be covered by the Indian Child Welfare Act.
We also need to have a strong voice within our cities that there be
adequate funding to provide culturally sensitive programming to meet the
unique needs of American Indians. Although we face these challenges, there
are resolutions if we can come together and protect all of our precious
children, as they are our greatest resource. Without them, Custer will have
won, after all.
Lorraine Brave, a Mohawk living in the Seattle area, has been an advocate
for American Indian children and their families for over 25 years. She also
is a trainer for Children's Academy for the state of Washington, and
teaches at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of
Washington and at Antioch University. She is presently working with the
United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.