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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Reimagining Child Welfare Through Tribal Perspectives and Practices

Written by A. Nikki Borchardt Campbell, executive director, National American Indian Court Judges Association; Ansley Sherman, staff attorney, National American Indian Court Judges Association; and Hon. Richard Blake, president, National American Indian Court Judges Association

Miquas, my name is Nikki Borchardt Campbell. I'm Southern Paiute and Ute, and I am an attorney and the executive director of the National American Indian Court Judges Association. When I was born, my mother was a single teenager. At one point when I was a kid, I lived with my maternal great grandmother and grandmother, my three teenage aunts, and my adult aunt in a three-bedroom HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) home. My mother temporarily lived with another relative while she completed school, but eventually she and my father also lived in the home with all of us as well. My memories from that time are filled with an overwhelming sense of love, duty, and safety emanating from my family. I played a lot, visited relatives, attended preschool and Head Start, ate well, and really disliked that my grandmother braided my hair so tightly every day. In addition, I learned my language and Paiute circle dance songs, traveled to cultural events, and learned how to fancy dance. Although I slept in the same room as my grandmothers, and my family was technically poor, my childhood was incredibly rich.

Today, given my work with judges, courts, and systems, it is not lost on me that if I had come to the attention of the child welfare system during my childhood, I could very well have been removed from my loving home—during a period of my life where I draw some of my happiest memories and built my own personal resiliency. Fortunately, that did not happen. My mother received help when she needed it, and my family and I were allowed to thrive. Those important formative years paved the way for the entire path for my life and my personal and professional successes. Sadly, my story is not the norm for children and families of color. But it should be.

The current iteration of the child welfare system has its foundations in systemic oppression and racism. Black and Brown children and families have been at the mercy of a system that equates poverty with abuse and neglect—a system that is supposed to care for children and reunite families but inflicts more trauma and harm than healing. Native American and Alaska Native communities have been subjected to racist ideology and historic U.S. policies that removed children from tribal homes and placed them in boarding schools and adopted them out into to White homes. Because of this history, adults my age today are products of intergenerational trauma. Even so, we know we have the solution; Our own communities' love, compassion, and empathy lead to healing our traumas. Immersing and surrounding a struggling family or individual with love, culture, and extended family as early as possible is the start to helping that person fully feel heard and supported and can provide an avenue for getting the person the services they need. But it is vital to provide these services and assistance (including legal advocacy or representation) before a family ever becomes involved in the justice system. We simply can't do that without multisystem coordination and communication.

Tribal courts also derive from a history of oppression (The first tribal courts—Courts of Federal Regulation—were developed to prosecute tribal members for practicing our language and ceremonial practices.). These courts are now run for tribal members, by tribal governments. Members of the National American Indian Court Judges Association and our staff recognize that we have an opportunity to induce transformational change to all justice systems. Our organization looks at justice holistically and believes that it includes all aspects of systems, including our courts, attorneys, tribal services, tribal councils, elders' councils, and, most importantly, our people. While our work focuses on judicial capacity building, we also focus on collaborative approaches to providing legal assistance for tribal members and addressing subsequent collateral consequences. We understand that to dismantle systems of harm and provide meaningful assistance to families, we need to focus on the individual and family as well as the judge. We must train our judges on cutting-edge legal and judicial topics and science, but we also must train our judges on judicial leadership, compassion, and empathy. We stand firmly with our partner, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and their message that siloed responses do not serve our children and families. Collaborative and interdisciplinary responses are mandatory. Judicial systems cannot change the entire child welfare system alone, but we are a vital partner in doing so.

Unfortunately, programs that purport to save our children from drugs and neglect, fuel bias and perpetuate structural racism. Harmful, pernicious stereotypes fill the media headlines and create false narratives—the welfare queen, the illegal, the drunk Indian, and the Redskin—that are embedded in the public psyche and feed implicit and express bias. This bias informs decision-making in all aspects of the child welfare system and directly affects children and families. If we seek true change to strengthen families and communities, prevent unnecessary family separation, and promote equity, each one of us must address implicit and actual bias and racism and confront it in every aspect of this system. That includes making sure that that every single person a family touches in the system receives interdisciplinary training, including teaching collaborative justice and holistic defense, the intersection of public health and the justice system, collateral consequences, the importance of tradition and culture, social science, and, most importantly, compassion and empathy. Listen to Black and Brown voices when they express needs and state they are harmed. Now is the time to dismantle and rebuild instead of continuing to just state that we hope for better. My story must be the norm. Every child and every family deserve the chance to thrive.