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Foster care, kinship care and our Indian children today

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Editor's note: This column is the first in a three-part series on the
current picture of Indian child welfare.

As our Indian children go through life and into adulthood, their lives and
the decisions they make are often compared to a journey down a road,
"walking with their feet in two worlds," just for one example.

The paths many of our children take often cross over into dominant culture
for a time, and sometimes not by choice. The modern story of Indian child
welfare and families has many confrontations and tragic landmarks. Indians,
with their history of seeing parenting as a shared or communal
responsibility, rely on other family members who not only fulfill
caregiving duties but also model positive skills for others to follow.
Western Europeans, with their history of a society that is built more
around external structures, industry, a common monetary system and
nationalism, are thus more likely to transfer the role of parenting to
outside caregivers and institutions instead of extended family.

Although very broad, these abstracts may contain some of the root causes of
conflict when it comes to Indian and non-Indian perspectives on how
children should be parented, especially when children are being provided
care outside the birth home.

The difficult history of Indian and European peoples is peppered with
examples where governments, child welfare advocates and religious
institutions propose permanent adoption as the best option following an
Indian child's removal from their parental home. Boarding schools in the
1800s followed the words of Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle
Indian School, to "kill the Indian and save the man." And while boarding
schools did not eradicate Indian culture entirely, their heaviest blow was
against the continuation of healthy Indian families whose structure was
their own and not based on non-Indian norms.

The BIA, with the Child Welfare League of America, began the Indian
Adoption Project in 1957. The project to "operate a clearinghouse for the
interstate placement of Indian children with non-Indian families" resulted
in reinforcing the mentality that the answer to Indian poverty was
inter-racial adoption and easing the existing barriers to permanent

Talk to grandparents in Indian country and you will learn that "adoption,"
as mainstream culture defines it, is not the norm. Today, Indian
caretakers, who are often extended family members, follow a traditional
model by caring for their own grandchildren.

An Oklahoma 60-year-old great-grandmother, after years of
on-again/off-again custody of her four grandchildren, is now the sole
caretaker of the children, aged 5, 7, 9 and 11. Recently, she retired from
her full-time job and accepted disability insurance for the family's income
so she could be there for the children and to recover from her increasing
complications from Type II diabetes. This living arrangement will be
entitled to no state-sponsored financial assistance, as it is an informal
foster care occurrence, often called "kinship care."

Traditional child-raising practices, mixed with a strong distrust of state
and county child welfare agencies, build a sub-culture of informal
caregivers who care for children, many without resources such as food
stamps, foster care assistance, Medicaid and other financial assistance.
The alternative for these caregivers is to turn these children, victims of
parental neglect, over to the state for placement with strangers in a
foster care system that's often unfamiliar with Indian culture and
traditions and in a placement system with its own shortcomings.

But what if the American foster care system had all the money it could ever
need to improve services? Wouldn't that solve all or most of the problems?

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Indian child welfare experts in the field understand the importance of the
financial issues but also recognize the barriers faced by Indian caregivers
in just trying to access available resources.

Connie Bear King is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and
the executive director of the Sioux City Office of Indian Education. Her
community activism in Indian child welfare issues has led to the creation
and continuation of the Community Initiative for Native Children and
Families since 1998. This group led the charge for an Iowa state Indian
Child Welfare Act, passed in 2003; and she helps coordinate annual marches,
called the Memorial Marches to Honor Our Lost Children, in Sioux City for
Indian children adopted out of their communities.

Bear King had this to say about state foster care and kinship care:

"We have an issue of having extended family and relatives step up to the
plate and want to be providing the care to those children that are removed
in incidents of alleged child neglect. What we're finding is that they
[state child welfare agencies] are asking for those Native relatives and
extended families to consider being foster care-certified. And there are a
lot of barriers that prevent Native families from becoming certified. We've
done a lot of outreach and campaigns to identify foster families here in
Sioux City, but we've not done a very good job.

"And I think the reason why is because the standards that are put in place
are basically white, middle-class standards that Native families are unable
to meet. And the standards definitely need to be changed, and they need to
be changed according to what cultural bearing that might have on those
standards. The families themselves -- the community -- would be able to
identify, as far as those standards, what needs to be changed and how they
should be changed.

"The other side of that [is], is that the only answer? Does foster care
need to be completely thrown out? No, I think foster parenting is a viable
option; however, I think what we need to do here in Iowa [is] to have
subsidized guardianships in place. And those are the types of reforms that
we need to [have] happen -- subsidized guardianships. So that when a family
member or relative or extended family member steps forward and says, 'Yes,
we do want to provide care to our young relative,' then they're given the
option of either applying for foster care or a subsidized placement with
them," Bear King said.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association, a child advocacy
organization dedicated to Indian children and families, provides technical
assistance to tribes and organizes policy analysis and change on behalf of
Indian child welfare programs. Terry Cross, executive director of NICWA,
stressed that Connie Bear King is "not alone in Indian country in her
efforts to help these children and families heal from the wounds of the
past, and connect and maintain their cultural traditions." Among many
important issues, Cross added: "Connie understands the important
relationship of our families to receive foster care assistance and their
ability to help the children's safety and stability. She also understands
some of the very critical barriers to our families even being able to
access services."

Poverty, addiction and historical trauma have shaken the foundation of the
Indian family. It is likely every Indian reader of this article can say
they have known an Indian family who could be labeled as struggling to meet
mainstream expectations about what makes a good parent. And many times,
these mainstream expectations are in conflict with the expectations that
tribal communities and families hold. While most of us are familiar with
informal parenting arrangements, such as extended families filling
parenting roles, we may be less informed about living in foster care or in
an adoptive household.

While these painful stories may be commonplace, the solutions to make
lasting change in our foster care and juvenile court systems seem out of
reach to most Indian people. This article series will examine recent
movements to make these social welfare systems work better in this country.
What is at stake is the well-being of our families and our most fragile
resource of all -- our children.

David Simmons is the director of Government Affairs and Policy at the
National Indian Child Welfare Association. Kristy Alberty is NICWA's
executive communications manager.