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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6This Is Our Story

Written by Andrea Smith, Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe

"Every child should have a happy growing-up life."
                        —S'Klallam Elder

The quote from a Port Gamble S'Klallam tribal elder encompasses the belief that all children need and have the right to happiness, love, and security. It is in tribal codes and policies as a reminder of why tribal systems are developed to assist children and families. Family includes those who are connected by bonds of love, friendship and caring, reliability and responsibility, and willingness to take care of one another—and the tribe itself is considered family. The tribal community works together in times of hardship and in times of celebration to ensure children and families are taken care of and supported. Everyone has a role as a participant, whether it is serving an elder the first plate of food, sharing a song about a past experience, or helping put the chairs and tables away after the event is done. Other communities work this way as well, taking care of one another based on bonds of caring, mutual respect, and the need and desire to help one another through shared experiences.

And despite all barriers and historically tragic events that have unfolded in communities faced with issues arising from persistent poverty, economic and social imbalances, and the prevalence of institutionalized racism, these communities still exist—stronger than ever because communities work together as cohesive family units to support one another. Sickness, chronic underfunding, and lack of access to services are not new. The current pandemic is a new circumstance. The spotlight on racial and social injustices embedded in antiquated systems that never truly addressed preventing or healing trauma for children and families provides an opportunity to lean into difficult conversations and work things out. All human beings are mere steps away from being the person who needs help and are, whether conscious of it or not, part of the unfolding story of the pandemic.

Native Americans are a small percentage of the population and a disproportionately high percentage of those in the child welfare system. Disproportional representation in the child welfare system is true for other communities faced with poverty, racism, and economic barriers as well. Language in federal law and policy, such as best interests of the child, have historically been used to remove children from their homes rather than keep families intact. This has led to justified mistrust of child welfare and legal systems. This has to change. We cannot move backwards to fund a system when a family is broken apart or create law or policy to create insurmountable barriers for a family to knit themselves back together after a crisis. We have the chance to explore the interconnectedness of all of our systems and thoughtfully take down the silos creating more issues. We can remodel the child welfare system to reflect the values of the people and communities who touch it and work on healing the hurts inflicted by the old system to ensure future generations do not experience the same.

We can invite children to the conversation, ask their opinions, respect the answers, and support their roles as participants. They may come up with simple answers to questions our child welfare system has purposely complicated beyond resolution. If racism is bad, do not support it. If prevention services are good, find ways to provide more of them and wrap services around the families' need to access them. Everyone has a role. Our collective story can be about truth, and truth is something that makes sense. If something does not make sense, it does not matter whether there is historical precedent for it; it should fall away. We are all human beings, and we are all a part of this. The purpose for changing and creating a better child welfare system is crystal clear. Every child deserves a happy growing-up life.

Be a part of the story that helped make it possible.