July 27, 2015

This thoughtful article that I just read describes the history of Native American children in our country and our historical and current approaches to child welfare that have attempted to solve the problems. (A series of new lawsuits is challenging how Native American kids are adopted, by Casey Tolan.)

A explained by Tolan, historically thousands of Native American children were taken from their homes and placed in Christian boarding schools or adopted into while families, in efforts to “Americanize” them. It has been estimated that huge numbers of the Native population have been separated from their families by American policies.

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) for purposes of protecting the rights of Native American children and the native tribes in issues relating to child welfare and child removal. The law created requirements that when Native American children become involved in the child welfare system, their tribe must be notified and attempts to place within the family and/or tribe made. The tribes are given significant power and decision-making deference in child welfare cases with respect to children who are within their membership.

The law includes a “good cause” exception to the general requirement that family members, members of the tribe, and Native American families from other tribes have to be considered for placement first. Believing this exception to be overused to the degree that it swallows the rule, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has recently published guidelines and proposed new regulations to redefine the “good cause” exception.

A number of opponents of ICWA were upset by the proposed regulations and filed multiple lawsuits challenging the application of ICWA in practice. The problem cited is that the law at times makes it so difficult to remove children who are in fact involved in high-risk home situations that the system is paralyzed from protecting them.

At this time, this situation is complex and difficult. I believe absolutely in the fact that there have been extensive violations of the rights of Native American families, especially historically. I believe few would dispute this fact. At this time, the best approach, however, is elusive.

Frankly, I believe this situation to be prototypical of a problem involving people of all nationalities and origins.

When there is a troubling or potentially dangerous home situation, what is the appropriate resolution? How do we end the widespread and far-reaching cycles of trauma in families and communities that continue every day?

Studies have been showing for decades now that dangerous or otherwise negative home situations generally lead to the repetition of those negative patterns in further generations.

However, separating a child from the child’s family is traumatic no matter what as a biological matter. First, the need for attachment to a primary caregiver and the devastating psychological effects of separation have been proven. Second, we can likely agree that it is not our job as human beings as a policy matter to engage in social engineering to place children in homes that we believe have “better” moral standards, practices, or behaviors. Third, even if a child were placed in an “optimal” socially, intellectually, and emotionally enriching and supportive environment, the trauma that the child underwent previously would not automatically be eliminated from that child’s psychological and biological makeup. Fourth, in nearly all cases, the child will miss his or her family regardless. Fifth, connection to one’s community and heritage is an important part of being human. Sixth, in practically all homes the negative is mixed with the positive.

With very limited exceptions, separation and adoption is not an absolute solution as a permanent policy matter. Problems of continuing trauma in families and communities require a new approach.

Based on my research and experience, I believe that the best approach is to educate the general public in matters relating to the importance and effect of positive parenting practices and to implement social policies leading to the implementation of those practices within families. In limited situations, removal would of course continue to be necessary, but it would be viewed as a limited temporary need, while keeping in mind the ultimate goal of general education and improvement in parenting practices.

It’s time for a new undertaking with respect to these difficult and important issues that we have not yet resolved. It is time for academic researchers, psychologists, child welfare leaders, policymakers, attorneys, judges, social workers, juvenile justice leaders, doctors, psychiatrists, counselors working with substance abuse issues, and other stakeholders in the field of child and youth welfare to meet, to exchange the most current information on these issues, and to formulate a plan to address these problems in the most effective and moral way possible. The stakes are high.

Continuing to put off this work means continuing problems in huge numbers of our population with issues including violence, lack of education, poverty, substance abuse, troubling living situations, sexual abuse, painful relationship struggles, and involvement with the criminal justice system and potential incarceration, among many others. Even those of us who believe our struggles are not as serious as those of individuals who deal with severe issues of violence and abuse, nonetheless deal with recurring struggles passed down through the generations in our families and communities that may include overwork, lack of time for family relationships, loneliness, recurring criticism, inability to engage in meaningful work, economic stress, health issues relating to stress, relationship struggles, among many other things.

Addressing appropriate approaches to improving continuing cycles of severe abuse and neglect in families and societies, as well as negative cycles not rising to the level of involvement of the child welfare system, requires continuing interdisciplinary work among our academic researchers, our mental health professionals, and our policymakers.


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